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Conversion and "Brainwashing" in New Religious Movements

by Dick Anthony and Thomas Robbins
(preliminary draft; final version published in The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, edited by James R. Lewis, Oxford University Press, New York 2004)

A substantial amount of research has transpired regarding patterns of conversion to “alternative religions” or “new religious movements” (NRMs).[1] A disproportionate amount of this research and related theorizing has concerned the assertion that recruitment to certain “cults” has been essentially involuntary in the sense that powerful techniques of “brainwashing”, “mind control” or “coercive persuasion” have rendered the processes of conversion and commitment psychologically coercive and non-consensual notwithstanding its formally voluntary status (Clark, 1976, 1980; Ofshe and Singer, 1986; Singer, 1991; Verdier, 1980). Although various forms of the mind-control thesis have received support from self-proclaimed “cult experts”, most scholars who have actually done research on the topic view their results as ontradicting the thesis (Anthony, 2002; Anthony and Robbins, 1994; Barker, 1984; Bromley, 2002; Richardson, 1993).

This essay will focus primarily on the issue of involuntary conversion of the “brainwashing thesis”. In addition to summarizing research on the topic, we will also present a theoretical critique that will identify its cultural significance.

A supporter of the brainwashing thesis notes that “brainwashing” entails “a useful though scientifically imprecise concept which refers to an array of complex phenomena resulting in the impairment of the individual’s cognitive and social functioning” (Enroth, 1984, 141). According to Enroth, scientists and scholars have discovered . . .

. . extremist cults’ recruitment and indoctrination procedures that effectively induce behavioral and attitudinal changes in new recruits. Such changes are usually described as relatively sudden and dramatic, resulting in diminished personal autonomy, increased dependency and the assumption of a new identity. Psychospiritual conditioning mechanisms used by cults have reportedly affected members’ ability to remember, to concentrate, and to fully exercise independent judgment. Members are subjected to intense indoctrination pressures which include the manipulation of commitment mechanisms so that new recruits assume a posture of rigid loyalty and unquestioning obedience to the leadership (Enroth, 1985; 141).

In this connection, the present writers have earlier identified what they view as a flawed “extrinsic model” of conversion to controversial movements (Anthony and Robbins, 1998). “There appears to be an operative model in which alleged cultist psychological coercion is viewed as fully equivalent to physical constraint such that the ‘psychologically coerced’ individual is as unambiguously under someone else’s control as is a physical captive . . .”

Basic elements of the model include: (1) a notion of total subjugation of victim who loses the ability to exercise free will; (2) a rejection of the idea that converts are attracted to cults by virtue of motivations and orientations that render them predisposed to be attracted to a particular type of movement (to the extent that such predisposing motives are acknowledged, they tend to be downplayed or trivialized and denied independent variable status); (3) an emphasis on alleged hypnotic processes and induced trance states and their consequences in terms of suggestibility, dissociation and disorientation; (4) an assertion with regard to the processes of conditioning or other allegedly deterministic influence processes . . . which supposedly overwhelm free will; (5) a specification of impaired cognition or patterns of defective thought that allegedly result from conditioning, hyper-emotionality and or trance states; (6) the hypnotic conditioning-indoctrination process is seen as operating to implant false ideas in a victim’s mind; (7) finally, brainwashing is seen as producing a false self or cultic identity which is superimposed on one’s authentic identity (Anthony and Robbins, 1996, 11).

Brainwashing claims thus entail a model of conversion/commitment in which there is an overwhelming preponderance of extrinsic or external forces (as opposed to intrinsic or authentic self-related forces) which determine religious choices. In effect, what is being maintained is that “brainwashed” religious choices are irrational, i.e., based on emotion, instinct, debilitation and automatic conditioning rather than reason and conscious consideration. As one eminent psychiatrist once maintained, conversion to “cults” does not entail a true conversion but rather a “pseudo-conversion” that involves “unthinking participation in group activities, a schedule designed to deprive followers of sleep and a conditioned reflex which is reinforced by group interaction” (West, 1975, 2). Other formulations involve references to “disorientation”, “hypnotic trance”, “snapping” etc.[2] In effect, conventional utilitarian individualism and instrumental rationality are being prioritized at the expense of intuition, epiphany, mystical gnosis, and intense emotion by the crusaders against cultic brainwashing. Choices based on non-rational factors such as emotion, intuition or ineffable mystical experiences are implicitly derogated as regressive primitive responses.

Finally, it should be noted that cult/brainwashing theory often tends to posit the emergence of a false self which cultic conditioning and mind control is said to superimpose on the authentic, developmental self of the convert. Thus one psychiatrist distinguishes between the “original” personality of cultists that has developed gradually through normal processes of socialization and maturation, and the artificially “imposed” cognitive and behavioral patterns suddenly induced by the intensive regimens of the cult (Clark, 1976, 2-3).

Historical Background

Today the notion of “conversion” generally tends to connote some kind of group switching, e.g., a Catholic becoming a Pentecostal/ Protestant or someone from a Christian or Jewish background becoming involved in an NRM. Historically, however, “conversion” has more often connoted a transformation of self, which may not necessarily entail group switching, e.g., a nominal adherent undergoes an experiential transformation which intensifies his fervor and commitment to a faith to which he was previously weakly connected. Conversion thus entails a shift in the centrality of a “master status” for one’s self-system (Snow and Machalek, 1984). A latent or dormant religious self becomes manifest.

Religious conversion can be seen as the achievement of a new (religious) self. In this sense conversion is partly convergent with “brainwashing” which also entails the acquisition of a new albeit putatively false and inauthentic self. Both concepts, conversion and brainwashing, can thus be linked to what has been called “self-estrangement theory” (Brian, 1987). Since the “Axial Age” of very roughly 1000 BCE to 1000 CE the great salvation religions have had as their core conception a duality of ‘true’ versus ‘false’ self. As Weber (1946) notes, all historical salvation religions have shared a notion of a false phenomenal or natural self that the convert must transcend upon pain or some sort of torment, suffering or endless malaise.[3] The devotee of a salvation religion is urged to achieve a ‘new self’ which is often seen to embody values which challenge the instrumental, utilitarian or legalistic rationality which Jesus in the New Testament attributes to the Pharisees and scribes. The main spiritual currents of self-estrangement theory have thus rejected utilitarian instrumental rationality in favor of irrational or non-rational experience amounting to an engagement with the latent self at a deeper level.

A number of seminal conceptualizations of the stages of sociocultural and religious evolution in the world (Bellah, 1999; Weber, 1946) and in the United States (Hammond, 1992) have highlighted the increasing structural differentiation of sociocultural spheres (including a growing “separation of church and state”) and a consequent accentuation of individual autonomy and of the capability and significance of social and religious choice. Transition points between the stages of development have often witnessed the emergence of dynamic and controversial religious movements whose prophets have formulated new conceptions religious identity and spiritual self-transformation. Such movements have tended to develop in a milieu pervaded by anomie while an institutionalized cultural pattern is dissolving. These transition points accentuate religious conflict and controversy.

Medieval society and its official Church (“Christendom”) entailed an “organic social ethic” (Bellah, 1999; Weber, 1946) which blunted the power of Christianity as a radical salvation religion. Salvation was grounded in a sacramental system and was not considered problematic for conforming participants. Powerful self-transformation and emotional intensity was not absolutely required. Some of the dissident, reform or pietist movements which emerged during the transition to Capitalist modernity have been called “religions of the heart” which focused on inner spiritual apotheosis and repudiated conventional selves unconcerned with radical salvation (Campbell, 1991). Many of these movements initially developed as reforming or “enthusiastic” currents within either Catholicism or an established Protestant Church (Knox, 1950), however, they were stigmatized as heresies or otherwise odious aberrations and more or less compelled to elaborate their own distinctive doctrines and organizations – hence assimilation to such groups became a form of religious “switching” or conversion to a new independent church or sect. Inconclusive “wars of religion” raged which led ultimately to support for “toleration” and for the notion of a “separation of church and state” in terms of governmental neutrality among competing faiths.

According to Phillip Hammond (1992) American religious history has evolved through three “disestablishments” in which autonomy, status, legitimacy and opportunity has been continuously extended beyond white Protestant, Christians and even conventional churches and synagogues, as socioeconomic and cultural constraints on religious diversity as well as lifestyle options have dissipated. Expressive individualism pervades “postmodern” American culture. Personal autonomy has been more or less sacralized. There are extensive choices and what was aberrant yesterday may appear at least marginally legitimate today (e.g., exotic gurus). Opponents of deviant religions are thus compelled to frame their indictment in terms of the norm of personal autonomy, which “mind controlling” cults are said to be violating and thereby committing the cardinal sin of anti-individualism (Beckford, 1985). The debate thus centers around who is really contravening individualism: cults practicing “coercive persuasion” or crusaders against cults working through the courts to impose various disabilities on disvalued sects and on those devotees who insist upon maintaining a stigmatized commitment (Anthony, et. al., 2002; Robbins, 1979).

Contemporary disabilities impinging upon deviant religiotherapeutic movements and their persisting adherents are often not crushing, but pending a fourth “disestablishment” they are tangible and serious. Bracketing physical violence, which has involved only a tiny proportion of alternative religions,[4] the disabilities reportedly imposed on their members by cults more or less depend for their validity on the brainwashing concept (or alleged overpowering psychological coercion in a formally voluntary context) and its application to alternative religions, which we will evaluate below.

In general, we consider the conflict between alternative religions and their “anticult” adversaries to be essentially a religious conflict. The “anticult movement” (AM) can be viewed as a sort of revitalization movement for conventional or modernist instrumental rationality and utilitarian individualism. The autonomy and individualism which cults are accused by the AM of destroying is not what might be termed “expressive individualism” i.e., true autonomy cannot from the standpoint of the AM be grounded in transcendental experiences, ecstatic or mystical states of consciousness, or intense emotions. Rather, such experiences are interpreted in terms of dangerous hypnotic trances, pathological dissociative states, infantile regression, depersonalization, and manipulated emotional excess that supposedly erodes personal autonomy and superimposes an artificial group identity on the victim’s authentic ego. Conflicts over cults thus entail fundamental value conflicts and are more akin to earlier “religious wars” than to a polarity of objective psychological science exposing induced psychopathology.

Let us briefly restate the foregoing discussion. “Conversion” as well as “brainwashing” is generally seen as involving the emergence (or recovery) of a religious self that is discontinuous with pre-conversion personal or group identity. However, from a (particular) religious standpoint, this is really a good rather than a bad thing. Both “cultic” and “anticult” perspectives are subvarieties of pervasive “self-estrangement theory.”

“Cult” leaders and their followers, who are viewed by critics as alienating new converts from their natural or authentic selves, likely view themselves as facilitating converts’ recovery of their primordial religious selves from their epiphenomenal material and culturally conditioned selves. As we show below, the anticult brainwashing viewpoint, insofar as it is formulated precisely enough to make its empirical claims testable, has tended to be disconfirmed by research. What the anticult perspective boils down to after such empirical disconfirmation is a pseudo-scientific, all-embracing value perspective or ideology. Shorn of its scientific pretensions, the anticult ideology is a fundamentalistic, arguably totalistic, version of the modernist worldview that targets competing worldviews as in effect tools of the devil.

To conceal its character as an intolerant, arguably totalitarian, rationale for the all-embracing truth claims of the modernist worldview, spokespersons for the anticult ideology have employed two interrelated rhetorical strategies. As Shapiro (1983) notes, defenders of coercive (abductive) deprogramming tended in the 1970s and early 80s to imply that, rather than developing a new religious self (which might possess a claim to religious freedom), brainwashed cult indoctrinees – sometimes overtly typified as “robots” and “zombies” – inhabited the limbo of not really having a self. They were pathologically “depersonalized”, “dissociated”, “regressed to psychological infancy”, etc. (Clark, 1976).

This argument was often not made fully explicit, and is now somewhat outmoded, having been associated with the controversy surrounding the extreme anticult measure of coercive deprogramming. The broader and more significant anticult argument has entailed the proposition that the converts’ acquisition of a different religious self has been involuntary. The convert’s “born-again” or otherwise new spiritual self has been coercively “imposed” through brainwashing/mind control procedures, which are intrinsically nonconsensual and operate insidiously to destroy or obviate free will.

Most of the remainder of this paper will critically evaluate this claim (and to a degree the related psychopathological claim) with respect to several areas: (1) the claimed theoretical basis in the prestigious foundational work on Maoist “thought reform” by Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein; (2) research on hypnosis (3) research on recent “new religious movements” (NRMs); and (4) research on the personalities of converts to NRMs. If the extreme model cannot withstand critical scrutiny, than the social conflict between alternative religions and their most vociferous and legally activist critics remains essentially a value conflict which the first amendment guarantee of religious freedom forbids the state to regulate. Despite their pseudo-scientific pretensions, then, the assertions of the anticult ideology do not in general warrant coercive state intervention aimed at counteracting the allegedly objectionable internal milieu of exotic sects.

Evaluating the Brainwashing Model

The authors of a review on the sociology of conversion note, “The ‘brainwashing’ or ‘coercive persuasion’ model is the most popular explanation of conversion [to NRMs] outside of sociological circles. The basic thesis is that conversion is the product of devious and specifiable forces acting upon unsuspecting and therefore vulnerable individuals” (Snow and Machalek, 1984, 178-179). The brainwashing or mind control explanation for conversion to deviant movements “has gained considerable currency among the public” in part because, “it provides a convenient and ‘sensible’ account for those who are otherwise at a loss to explain why individuals are attracted to ‘deviant’ and ‘menacing’ groups” (Snow and Machalek, 1984, 179). One crusading clinician maintains, “Today’s [cultic] thought reform programs are sophisticated, subtle and insidious, creating a psychological bond that in many ways is far more powerful than gun-at-the-head methods of influence” (Singer, 1994, 3-4). Scholars who have conducted actual research on NRMs have tended toward skepticism regarding such demonological accounts (Barker, 1984, 1986; Richardson, 1993).

As noted above, brainwashing theories represent an extreme form of an extrinsic model in which a presumptively passive convert is overwhelmed by dynamic overpowering stimuli and converted to ideas and to a self-conception which would previously have been highly distasteful to the convert. As noted in an influential social-psychology text, in brainwashing, “the subject is assumed to be passive, without choice or freedom of will to escape his or her brain being laundered” (Zimbardo, et. al., 1977, 190).[5] In brainwashing “a unitary entity, agency or procedure” is seen to regularly produce quick and effective results in transforming attitudes, behavior and identity. In contrast, “when a number of factors over a long period of time affect some people but not others, the ‘impact’ is evaluated more in terms of dispositional properties of targeted individuals (their personal traits) than in the power of their techniques . . . . even when the impact on particular people may be substantial” (Zimbardo, et. al., 1977, 190-191).

Although there are some valid components of the ‘mind control’ stereotype: authoritarian movements, manipulative leaders, zealous devotees and groups with violent proclivities, there may also be substantial distortions and exaggerations. In this paper, we have delineated key elements of the brainwashing model, or rather the extrinsic or externalist model of conversion to extreme apocalyptic movements in which the recruitment, mobilization and transformation of members is seen as totally instigated and controlled by sinister techniques of persuasion and intrinsic (e.g., personality, predispositional) factors are deemed insignificant. Below we will question this model both in terms of its posited pedigree in the foundational work of Robert Lifton on ideological totalism and Maoist thought reform, and in terms of its compatibility with recent research on marginal religious movements and the personalities of their members, as well as research on hypnosis. In terms of an alternative approach we will posit an interaction between certain “totalist” movements and ideologies on the one hand, and certain predisposing configurations of individual personal identity which are further distorted and extrapolated in a militant totalist milieu in which there may also (rarely) be a mobilization for violent acts. Finally, we will consider what kinds of movements and worldviews are most likely to elicit the support of certain predisposed individuals and to facilitate their development of a “contrast identity” in which an idealized self-concept is combined with projection of negativity onto outsiders and scapegoats, a pattern which may have some implications for possible violence and authoritarian control.

Foundational Thinkers and the Extrinsic Model

In the context of the “Cold War” an extreme, extrinsic brainwashing model was formulated and popularized by Edward Hunter, a journalist and publicist for the CIA (1951, 1960). Hunter claimed that brainwashing represented a devastatingly effective psychotechnology of extrinsic psychic coercion which could transform a victim into a kind of robot or zombie through the use of Pavlovian conditioning, hypnotic trances and other means. “The intent is to change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet – a human robot – without the atrocity being visible . . . with new beliefs and new thought processes inserted into a captive body (Hunter, 1960, 309). The brainwashing process is said to entail the use of “hypnotism, drugs and cunning pressures that plague the body and do not necessarily require marked violence” (Hunter, 1951, 11). Physical coercion is sometimes present, but it is not a necessary feature of the brainwashing or “brain-changing” process as Hunter conceptualizes it. Brain-changers are able to induce the false beliefs and memories in their victims (Hunter, 1951, 10-11). Other early writers (dealing largely with Stalinist or Maoist indoctrination) conceptualized brainwashing in terms of the use of trance states to induce a primitive and regressive mental state in which an individual exhibits heightened suggestibility such that he or she can more easily be programmed by scientific (e.g., Pavlovian) conditioning methods (Farber, et. al., 1975). One early writer actually claimed to identify parallels between Pavlov’s conditioning experiences with dogs and early revivalist conversions to Methodism (Sargent, 1950, 1951, 1974).

Although the extrinsic brainwashing model has often been attacked in terms of its applicability to “new religious movements,” it has been assumed to be an accurate portrait of the Korean War POW situation which played such a vital role in the development of the model. This is not the case, however; for example, a much cited article, published in 1956, which reviewed much of the existing Korean POW data, concluded that those prisoners who went beyond forced compliance and embraced the ideas of their captors were initially somewhat sympathetic to those beliefs (Hinkle and Wolff, 1956).

In cases in the 1980s experts testifying against “cults” often cited the prestigious foundational work of Robert Lifton (1961) and Edgar Schein (1961) on “coercive persuasion” and “thought reform” as establishing the theoretical basis for their testimony. In 1988, the California Supreme Court in a key opinion appeared to accept the notion that Schein and Lifton affirmed that “brainwashing exists and is remarkably effective,”[6] although in 1990 a federal court perceived greater ambiguity regarding the foundational texts (Anthony and Robbins, 1992). In the review essay on the sociology of conversion quoted above, the authors cite Schein and Lifton as sources of the brainwashing model (Snow and Machalek, 1984).

In our view, the views of Schein and Lifton are actually significantly at variance with the thoroughly extrinsic Cold War model. Although they clearly affirm a manipulative process aimed at producing false confessions and conversions, their views have been distorted to the effect that they are wrongly said to affirm a highly effective coercive psychological process which is equivalent to physical imprisonment and in which individual predispositions, pre-motives and personality patterns play no vital role.

In this paper, we will be primarily concerned with the view of Robert Lifton, because it is more fully developed, and the subtle interactions he delineates between a totalistic milieu and certain personality-identity patterns is, in our view, particularly significant in terms of understanding conversions to contemporary totalist movements. Nevertheless, one of the present writers has previously shown that the findings from Schein’s study of Korean POWs and Maoist indoctrination undermine the extreme extrinsic model in a number of respects (Anthony, 1990). Thus, Schein considered that the Chinese program of POW indoctrination was a relative failure given the resources allocated (Schein, 1964; Anthony, 1990). Unlike the clinicians and other “experts,” Schein considered physical imprisonment such a vital element of communist psychological coercion that he built it into his definition of “coercive persuasion.”[7] Though physically debilitated, POWs were mentally alert and rational while being subjected to thought reform and did not exhibit defective thought patterns (Schein, 1961, 202-203, 238-239), moreover, he suggests that the popular image of “brainwashing” as entailing “extensive self-delusion and excessive distortion . . is a false one,” (1961, 239; Anthony, 1990, 312). Dr. Schein also downplays the role of hypnotic trance disorientation and dissociative states in coercive persuasion, which is really intended “to produce ideological and behavioral changes in a fully conscious, intact individual” (Schein, 1959; Anthony, 1990, 316). Finally, Schein rejects both the term “brainwashing” (Schein, 1961, 18) and the assumption that communist ideas were initially alien and antithetical to all American POWs in Korea (Schein, 1961, 202).

In his pioneering work, Chinese Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, Robert Lifton (1961, 419-437) sets forth a “complex set of psychological themes” including “Milieu Control,” “Mystical Manipulation,” “Demand for Purity,” “Sacred Science,” “Loading the Language,” “Doctrine Over Person” and “The Dispensing of Existence.” The development of totalistic commitments in individuals (or personal conversions to totalism), and, indeed, the crystallization of a totalist milieu, entails a process of interaction between individual proclivities and ideologies. Thus, the key term, ideological totalism is meant “to suggest the coming together of an immoderate ideology with equally immoderate character traits – an extremist meeting round of people and ideas” (1961, 419). Lifton’s view appears to us to suggest that Weberian term, which Lifton doesn’t employ, elective affinity. Each of the eight psycho-ideological themes of totalism “mobilizes certain individual emotional tendencies, mostly of a polarizing nature.” Nevertheless, “psychological theme, philosophical rationale and polarized individual tendencies are interdependent; they require rather than directly cause, each other” (our emphasis) (1961, 422).

Although there are definitely ideological and institutional qualities of totalism, “The degree of totalism depends greatly upon factors in our personal history: early lack of trust, extreme environmental chaos, total domination by a parent or parent-representative, intolerable burdens of guilt and severe crises of identity . . an early sense of confusion and dislocation, or an early experience of extremely intense family milieu control can produce later a complete intolerance for dislocation and confusion, and a longing for the reinstatement of milieu control,” (Lifton, 1961, 436). While one might get the impression from some recent writings on “cults” that an individual must be brainwashed qua deeply disoriented, dissociated, literally deluded and totally conditioned to adhere to a totalistic movement, Lifton notes that “ideological totalism itself may offer a man an intense peak experience: a sense of transcending all that is ordinary and prosaic, of freeing himself from the encumbrances of human ambivalence, of entering a sphere of truth, reality, trust and sincerity beyond any he had ever known or imagined” (1961, 435).[8]

It is important to realize that the overwhelming majority of Dr. Lifton’s western subjects, who had undergone Chinese thought reform, exhibited only behavioral compliance under physical duress and threats, i.e., communist thought reform obtained from each subject, “the extraction of an incriminating personal confession because it made this confession a requirement for survival,” (1961, 150). Very few subjects, principally “Miss Darrow” and “Father Simon,” exhibited significant (but not total) alternation of their convictions in the direction of Maoism. The quasi-conversion experiences of these subjects are analyzed in depth by Dr. Lifton, but the analysis deals rather extensively with their pre-conversion personalities, past history, emotional strains and identity problems, which are viewed as indispensable factors.

Each westerner who underwent thought reform “tended to be influenced to the degree that his identity, whatever it may have been, could be undermined through the self-deprecating effects of guilt and shame. This susceptibility in turn depended upon his balance between flexibility and totalism and their special significance for his character structure,” (1961, 150).

One of the “apparent converts,” Miss Darrow possessed a “negative identity.” For Miss Darrow, “the usual problems of guilt about parents and biological identity were intensified.” She was unable to open letters from home because of the guilt they stimulated,” and she “found herself preoccupied with her ‘badness’ as a daughter,” (1961, 129). Also significant was the fact that, “an element of totalism – a tendency toward all or nothing emotional alignments – seems ever-present in Miss Darrow, working against some of the more moderate aspirations of her liberalism,” (1961, 129). Maoist thought reform “exploited each of these aspects of her negative identity, made conscious what was previously latent, and built into grotesque dimensions what had previously been held in balance,” (1961, 130).

The personality of Father Simon, “The Converted Jesuit,” possessed an even more prominent totalist streak than that of Miss Darrow. “As the conscientious enthusiast, he had shown a tendency to embrace totally a series of influences – Catholicism, American know-how, Chinese life and then Chinese communism” (1961, 219). Alternating phases of defiance and conversion with respect to each strong influence he encountered, Father Simon both sought and feared “total unity with an all-powerful force.” “Whether defying or converting, his was an all or nothing approach.” Simon “sought trust and intimacy on absolute terms. For him both conversion and defiance were attempts to ward off inner feelings of aloneness, weakness and helplessness,” (1961, 219-220). “This authoritarian priest shared with the liberal missionary’s daughter [Darrow] psychological traits characteristic for the apparent convert: strong susceptibility to guilt, confusion of identity, and most important of all, a long-standing pattern of totalism,” (1961, 218).[9] Thus, by implication the impact of the manipulative thought reform process on Dr. Lifton’s partially converted subjects was not really psychologically involuntary but rather was based on the dynamic interaction of the authoritarian ideology and a predisposing longing for surrender to a totalistic worldview.[10]

At this point, it is important to note that one of Lifton’s mentors was the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson from whom Lifton got his conception of totalism (Erikson, 1954), but also theories of negative and polarized identities which permeate Lifton’s analyses of the conversions and other responses of his subjects.

Erikson’s paper on “Wholeness and Totality” (1954) represented an early attempt to formulate a general model of authoritarianism, i.e., a general psychology of totalism which would be applicable to persons attracted to both fascist and communist movements as well as other totalistic groups. Some persons, Erikson maintains, develop a kind of totalistic or proto-totalistic syndrome which bears some relationship to an inadequate resolution of the tensions of the oedipal developmental stage of childhood. Persons with certain psychological conflicts may develop a self-concept which is polarized between unrealistically positive and negative self-images competing for domination in the person’s self-definition. Totalitarian movements appeal to such persons by reinforcing a narcissistically grandiose self-conception and providing a collective foundation for the projection of elements of the polarized negative self-image onto a scapegoated contrast group.

Erikson maintains that a personality embodying “wholeness” is characterized by open and fluid boundaries. Moral principles and other differentiations of reality constructed by the ego take the form of somewhat ambiguous continua rather than sharp and dichotomous polarities. In contrast, the totalistic organization of the personality entails an emphasis on an absolute boundary between the person and the exterior social environment. The person feels fundamentally separate from the outside world. A sense of relationship is attained by forming intense negative and positive identifications with crudely dichotomized parts of the person and of social reality. Moral and ideological principles are internalized as absolutes. Impulses, fantasies, behaviors and opinions not fully consistent with positive identifications are denied and dissociated. But this rigid organization tends to be unstable, in part because split-off parts of the psyche may continue to seek expression and threaten the unrealistic and dualistic definition of acceptable selfhood (Erikson, 1954).

Like the authors of the famous volume, The Authoritarian Personality, (Adorno, et. al., 1950), Erikson maintains the persons with unconscious guilt tend to possess a “negative external conscience” that renders them prone to transferring responsibility for their beliefs and actions to authoritarian hierarchies legitimated by absolutist ideologies and to the projection of anger and guilt onto demonized outgroups.[11]

It is well-known that Erikson (1956) broadened and extended the received psychoanalytic scheme of individual psycho-sexual development, replacing the tripartite childhood model with eight developmental stages extending through adulthood. Favorable vs. unfavorable resolutions of the polarity which dominates each stage determine whether a wholistic or totalistic personality pattern evolves. The initial stage features the antimony of basic trust vs. mistrust. The emergence of “Basic Mistrust” patterned by recurrent disruptions of an infant’s sense of ontological security can produce “total rage” accompanied by fantasies of total control over the sources of nurturance and consequent apocalyptic-totalist proclivities. Religious worldviews may confer meaning qua metaphysic reality on Basic Mistrust via symbols of ultimate evil, although religious rituals can help facilitate a collective restitution of trust.

Resolutions of the polarities of other stages, particularly the Third, Oedipal (or guilt vs. initiative) phase which may produce a punitive super-ego or negative conscience (see above) also contribute to the contingent emergence of totalistic rigidity in individuals. In his article, “Wholeness and Totality,” Erikson places special emphasis on the adolescent/post-adolescent context of the “identity crisis” and the threat of identity/role diffusion, which develops when a young person cannot integrate emergent adult responsibilities with a childhood sense of self in order to evolve a coherent picture or image of himself/herself as a continuous, unitary individual. A temptation for persons who experience difficulties in this respect is to effect a “total immersion in a synthetic identity” through totalistic participation in a movement affirming extreme nationalism, racism or class consciousness and thematizing a “collective condemnation of a totally stereotyped enemy” (Erikson, 1954, 170).

In Erikson’s view an adolescent in the throes of identity confusion may, to avoid remaining “a contradictory bundle of identity fragments,” adopt a “negative identity” (1954, 169). A youth will thus undergo an “almost willful” total realignment in which the polarized-punitive self, the characteristic legacy of unresolved oedipal tension, undergoes a sudden reversal in which a formerly condemned “bad self” is consciously affirmed as one’s true identity. Youth who affirm negative identities frequently act out through drugs, crime, promiscuities and involvement in delinquent subcultures or counter-cultures. An alternative (or subsequent) strategy entails re-orienting the negative identity into a contrast identity (our term) through a transvaluation in which participation in some sort of radical or esoteric subculture is redefined as totally good while the exterior mainstream is condemned as evil. Erikson sees radical leftist or rightist political groups helping to crystallize contrast identities by giving their rebellion a “stamp of universal righteousness within a black and white ideology,” (1954, 169).

Lacking “inner wholeness,” some persons who are predisposed to totalism develop a self-concept which is polarized between a good self and a bad self. Involvement in a totalistic group with an absolutist, Manichean worldview and a charismatic leader creates a basis for affirming the pure idealized self in terms of a strong identification with the noble virtues of the movement, its vital truth and its heroic leader, while incompatible or rejected feelings and weaknesses are projected onto demonized scapegoats, e.g., Jews, reds, homosexuals, bourgeoisie, non-believers, etc. Thus, through totalistic commitment an internally fragmented person may evade both identity confusion and an oppressive negative conscience.

The Hypnosis Factor

What is it that supposedly overwhelms the will and dispositions of converts and propels them into psychological imprisonment? Emphases on hypnosis, trances, and dissociation appear to be almost ubiquitous in clinical anticult formulations in the 1980s through 1990 (cf. Singer and Ofshe, 1990). Thus, according to the one clinician, “a naïve or deceived subject who is passing through or has been caused to enter a susceptible state of mind” is subjected to “highly programmed behavioral control techniques . . in a controlled environment” such that “the subject’s attention is narrowed and focused to the point of becoming a trance.” The trance state “is maintained during several sleep periods until it becomes an independent structure.” A “continued state of dissociation” is thus sustained, with resulting drastic personality alteration (Clark, 1976, 280).

“At the core of Scientology’s influence” maintains Richard Ofshe, a sociologist, in a court document, is its (putatively therapeutic) auditing process. “At the heart of the auditing procedure is the use of hypnosis” which “is important because it is used within Scientology to deceive clients and cause them to believe that they are able to accomplish para-normal feats and regain memories of past life experiences . . . . The fantasies that are induced through hypnosis have the quality of seeming more real that most memories,” (Ofshe, 1987, 7). A bit of a ‘Manchurian Candidate’ theme appears in the comments of a clinician who states that in cults, “Many individuals are hypnotized. Many individuals are objects of hypnosis and autohypnosis where certain phrases and words will trigger a certain kind of thought pattern within the individual (Benson, 1977, 234). Cult recruiters are alleged to systematically employ hypnotists’ techniques (Miller, 1986).

As we have noted, theories of cultic brainwashing often allege that hypnotic rituals (such as Scientology’s “auditing” procedures) are integral to cultic mind control (Abgrall, 1999ab; see also Anthony, 1990, 1999; Martin, 1993; Singer, 1983; Singer and Lalich, 1995). Nevertheless as Anthony (1999, 444) has noted, there is in fact a scientific consensus that “hypnosis is not an effective technique for causing people to engage involuntarily in behavior that is immoral, illegal, or against their own self-interest” (see also Barber, 1961; Conn, 1982; Fromm and Shor, 1979, pp 6-12; Orne, 1961-1962; Spanos, 1996). Anthony (1999:444) continues:

This is one of the most well-researched questions in the history of hypnosis research, and it is the consensus of informed scientific opinion that hypnosis cannot be used effectively for overwhelming free will or for substituting the will of the hypnotist for the will of the hypnotized. . . the idea that hypnosis could be used to impose a false personality on another and establish long-lasting control over their whole lifestyle is so far fetched that it found only in popular science fiction on the topic of brainwashing such as the book The Manchurian Candidate (Condon, 1958). Indeed the idea that participating in a new religion changes one’s basic personality is itself unsupported by empirical research (see Paloutzian, Richardson and Rambo, 1999).

An additional important line of research regarding hypnosis suggests that there is really no method of definitively determining whether or not someone is “hypnotized.” From this standpoint hypnosis is really a socially collaborative situation which does not distinctively differ from various other collaborative situations (Anthony, 1999; Barber, 1969; Gauld, 1992; Kirsch, 1995). The “hypnotic trance” is really somewhat of a myth and the state of consciousness of a person under hypnosis is not clearly empirically distinguishable from normal consciousness. Therefore the claim that a given pattern of social influence is actually based on hypnosis is not provable. Thus, Anthony (1999, 447) concludes that, “with respect to the [scientific] criteria of falsifiability, there is no scientifically accurate way of disconfirming the claim that [particular] social influence is based on hypnosis. Consequently . . [the] contention that Scientology auditing is a form of hypnosis is unfalsifiable and results in irrefutable allegations,” which should not be viewed as an acceptable basis for legal evidence. Anthony (1999, 446-451) also demonstrates that concepts of conditioning, infantile regression, and addiction, which also crop up in anticult formulations (Abgrall, 1999ab ; Martin, 1993; Zablocki, 1998) do not meet scientific standards of falsifiability at least in terms of their dubious applications to patterns of commitment in religious movements.

Contemporary Research on Recruitment

It is clear from the foregoing that, at the very least, Robert Lifton’s foundational analysis of conversion to totalism is at variance with application of an extreme model of brainwashing to contemporary “cults” – most principally regarding the denial of a dynamic role for individual predispositions and pre-conversion psychological currents. Hypnosis has also been overhyped as a coercive vehicle. There is no inescapable omnipotent psychotechnology which renders individual predilections irrelevant.

Looking at more recent issues, there exists a body of research on kinds of persons who participate in new and unconventional spiritual movements or are attracted to such groups. The research appears to indicate that such individuals are not randomly chosen from the population (or even from the young adult population) but rather manifest certain attributes of personal background and orientation which tend to be correlates of participation and attraction. Some of the pertinent data comes from the Bay Area survey study of a random sample of hundreds of individuals studied in the early 1970s.

In his volume The Consciousness Reformation, Robert Wuthnow (1976) reports that certain value-orientations or varieties of perceived “locus of causation” of outcomes in human affairs appear to be correlated with expressions of interest in three “eastern” religious groups, Yoga, Zen and Hare Krishna. Two “traditional” orientations, theistic (Divine intervention determines our fate) and individualistic (individual character and will determine our fate) are negatively correlated with favorable dispositions toward eastern mystical groups. Significantly more attracted to such groups are individuals who score high on two non-traditional or modernistic orientations: a social science orientation in which sociological and psychological factors are seen as shaping human destiny, and a mystical orientation which grounds the locus of causation in human affairs in wholistic conceptions of the universe, intuitive or transrational states of consciousness, etc. The implication here is that persons may be self-selected into non-traditional groups in part because they support or are attracted to the values and orientations these groups espouse.

In a follow-up volume, Experimentation in American Religion, Wuthnow (1978) deals not only with expressed attraction to eastern religions but also with actual participation in such groups. Wuthnow finds that both attraction to and actual participation in the four eastern groupings are predicted by four constructed multi-indicated variables which are distinct from each other and operate additively and cumulatively to make a substantial difference. The variables are exposure to novel religions, which entails a measure of cultural sophistication or cosmopolitanism, as well as claims to awareness of such groups; legitimacy, which entails liberal attitudes on social issues and support for sexual experimentation, homosexuality, abortion, etc.; opportunity for social experimentation, which involves factors such as being single, youth, geographic mobility and not being locked into permanent career roles; and finally, motivation, which entails measures denoting the lack of a sense of the meaning and purpose in life, dissatisfaction with one’s sex life, unsettling financial vicissitudes and a lack of stable work or work plans. Among persons with high scores on the variables of exposure, legitimacy and opportunity, 7/8 of them express attraction to unorthodox eastern groups and 1/2 of them admit to having actually participated in such groups. As few as 5% express attraction to these groups among persons with very low scores on the key variable, while as many as 87% of high scorers express favorable dispositions toward the groups.

The “motivational” variable, which appears in part to embody a factor of sexual-relational-economic stress, does not by itself much increase the likelihood of either favorable attitudes or actual involvement. Only when the cognitive foundations of attraction to new mystical currents has been established by cultural sophistication, opportunity and legitimating orientations toward modernistic social experimentation does the probability of participation substantially increase. Thus, stress and related “vulnerability” and “suggestibility” does not by itself lead to persons to become involved in non-traditional “cults” unless such stress is accompanied by attitudes supportive of spiritual innovation.

Further support for this proposition derives from a careful study which entailed questionnaires administered to a probabilistic sample of 1000 high school in the San Francisco Bay area in 1980 (Zimbardo and Hartley, 1985). Although published in what is generally considered an “anticult” journal, the authors affirm (1985, 93) that, “In the past, fascination with the ‘psychology of persuasion’ and the surprising effectiveness of their [cults’] recruitment techniques, has paradoxically led to a narrowness of focus and, consequently, to a neglect of the interaction that takes place between recruiter and prospective recruit” ( emphasis in the original). They suggest that contrary to the “prototype of passive vulnerability” on the part of the recruit to controversial religious movements, “The target of a cult recruiter may be a seeker of engagement. His or her needs, values, knowledge and personal experiences may impel movement toward selection of or contact with certain kinds of recruiters” (1985, 93).

Fifty four percent of the sample had had at least one prior contact with a cult or cult recruiter and “more than half of the students surveyed were receptive to attending a cult function if invited to one, whether or not they had prior contact” (1985, 139) A majority of students who had not been approached by a cult recruiter expressed at least some interest in having contact with a cult activity. The researchers want to know if it is “possible to identify a set of characteristics that predict which individuals will be contacted by a cult recruiter, and if contacted, which of these students will reject or be receptive to further inducements for affiliation with a cult” (1985, 109).

Of those who had contact with a cult, 70% reported never having any thought about joining a cult, 2% had thought about joining but never would, 1% were presently contemplating joining a cult, and 3% said they were currently members of a cult group. “It is interesting to observe that more of those students who had no contact with a cult recruiter were receptive to an invitation [to attend a cult function] than were those who had been approached (60% vs. 45%, p=<.01)” (1985, 111). The fact that subjects were less predisposed to accept contact if they had prior contact could indicate that initial contact does not enhance suggestibility and that, by implication, the willingness of a majority of subjects to consider contact represents authentic, meaningful predispositions rather than “vulnerability.” Can cults be potent “brainwashing” agencies if contact with them turns many people off?

Some of the predictor variables which influence whether members of the total sample have actually had prior contact with a cult appear to indicate that initial contact is not random but reflects definite predispositions – ‘seekership’ – on the part of the subjects. Students who perceive a cult as having a positive purpose as opposed to being basically exploitative or mercenary, etc., are more likely to have had contact. Students who identify a given group as a “cult” are more likely to have had contact with it, i.e., their contact did not deceive them. Persons who believe in the value or necessity of having exposures to differing views are more likely to have had contact, as are students who have a more favorable view of the prototypical cult member. Persons whose fathers have a higher occupational status are more likely to have had more contact (cultural sophistication?). Persons with contact tend to get poorer grades than non-contacters, which may relate to alienation and thus to Wuthnow’s “legitimacy” factor. Finally, persons who have made contact tend to engage in more religious and spiritual practices than persons who have not had contact. “It is reasonable to conclude that those students who are contacted by cult members differ in systematic ways from those not approached.” But the differences are subtle and “more a matter of degree than of a qualitative nature” (1985, 170).

Another set of variables predict greater openness to accepting a future invitation to a cult function among the subsample of 523 students who had previously had contact with a cult, and for those 389 who had not been approached. “Engaging in spiritual, religious or mystical practices predisposes students to be more open to cult invitations,” but only among persons who had not been previously approached (1985, 124). Although persons who had previous contact with a cult recruiter were less likely to be open to future contact, there are varying and divergent evaluations of the behavior, manner and self-presentation of the recruiter. “What ‘works’ for some targeted students works against developing favorable attitudes in others” (1985, 127). Persons who perceive the recruiter more positively, increases the receptivity to further contact as does perceiving the group’s purposes less negatively. Among persons who had been contacted, receptivity to further contact was enhanced if the initial contact had been via the recruiter’s “private channels” (e.g., a cult function) rather than in public spaces such as on campus. Familiarity with spiritual terminology such as “cosmic consciousness” or “meditation” is positively related to willingness to attend a cult function, but only among persons not previously approached. Persons whose contact with a cult recruiter did not take place in a family setting are more open to further contact. In the view of the present writers, some of these variables seem to represent “seeker” variables and “choice” behavior rather than mere “vulnerability” or “suggestibility,” e.g., persons who went to a cult site or function (“private channels”) are more favorable to future contact than persons sought out by recruiters at school or in their homes (“familial” settings). “Contacted students who would consider/accept [future contact] are not necessarily uninformed students with poor grades, shy, poor or gullible. They have lots of media exposure, know what cults are, engage in a moderate amount of religious practices, and are undogmatic about being exposed to contrary views” (emphasis on original, 1985, 141).

In general, Zimbardo and Hartley are impressed with the large proportion of persons who would be receptive to attending a cult function if invited, notwithstanding the milieu of highly negative media treatments of cults and their own negative evaluations of cults and recruiters. “This is one reason why the subject of a cult recruitment attempt should not be viewed as a passive target overwhelmed by coercively compelling ‘mind control tactics’” (1985, 139).

The supposition that conversion to (even relatively authoritarian and totalist) movements tends to reflect an interaction of individual predispositions with the properties, including ideational and valuative properties, of the movement, receives further support from an acclaimed study by Eileen Barker (1984) of 1017 prospective “Moonies” who began a series of indoctrination seminars run by the controversial Unification Church in London in 1979.[12] Dr. Barker’s comparisons involve a sample of persons who went through the 21-day tri-seminar indoctrination program and then actually joined the Church, plus a sample of “non-joiners” who completed the indoctrination process but did not join, and a sample of “leavers” who joined but shortly left, and a control sample matched to the original seminarians on demographic variables. On the basis of her additional qualitative research, Dr. Barker estimates that about one out of 100 persons who are approached ‘on the street’ agree to attend the seminars. Thus the control sample presumably consists of persons, the overwhelming majority of whom would refuse to come to the initial 3-day seminar and their characteristics can be compared to those of initial attendees.[13]

A profile of the “Moonie” and how she or he differs from others emerges from Barker’s tabulations and her interviews with indoctrinees and their relatives. “Moonies tend to have come from what could be called conventional and highly ‘respectable’ homes in which traditional values of family life, morality and ‘decency’ were upheld – or at least in which it was generally acknowledged that they ought to be upheld, (Barker, 1984, 211). It also appeared that Moonist converts had a substantially greater exposure to organized religion (e.g., early church attendance) than had either the control group or the non-joiners and the “leavers” (who joined but shortly left), “although these latter groups still had considerably more exposure than the rest of the population” Barker suggests “that Moonies are people who had been prepared for religious answers to problems,” (1984, 213).

Moonists tend to be fairly well educated but to have, after childhood, “redefined themselves as no longer being a willing part of the educational system, even though, objectively speaking, they may still have been in it (1985, 216). There is a hint here of alienation evocative of Wuthnow’s “legitimacy” and motivation variables, which enables the individual to feel free to engage in innovation, experimentation or extremism. Yet, politically, Moonies are more likely to be conservative and less likely to be socialist than members of the control group, with leavers being intermediate. Finally, persons who joined the movement are more likely than that control group to claim to have been actively idealistic in terms of actively seeking to “improve the world,” at the time they began the first seminar, with non-joiners intermediate but leavers even more idealistic than members. A similar pattern emerges with respect to the ideal of “understanding God.”

To summarize, there do appear to be significant differences between joiners and non-joiners, joiners and leavers, and between neophyte seminarians and controls. But this finding, in combination with the findings of Wuthnow and Zimbardo-Hartley, does not fully discredit the extrinsic model. Predispositional patterns may make some persons more likely to visit a group or start seminars than others, yet it may still be claimed that once one enters the indoctrinational setting, the “conversion” one may experience is totally determined by extrinsic manipulations and psychotechnology. It will be recalled that in their text on social influence Zimbardo, et. al. (1977, 190) state that in the brainwashing model, indoctrinees are assumed to be totally passive and all transformation can thus be attributed to a single agency which, by providing a specified input can elicit “a big, quick, reliable output in most people,” over a limited time-period. It is in this respect that Dr. Barker’s data is particularly striking.

Dr. Barker maintains that any conversion situation is likely to be influenced in varying degrees by a number of factors (or ensembles of factors) including the pre-convert’s dispositions which he or she brings to the situation, the broader social context, the positive appeal of the movement (e.g., its ideals, etc.), and the actual immediate indoctrination process, in this case the Unificationist seminars. These factors interact, but with different relative significance, to shape an individual transformation. Barker typologizes a number of conversion patterns in which these factors are differentially weighted to produce a convert. In chemico-biological brain control, physical control entailing physical captivity, and mental coercion, the immediate, intensive indoctrination process will necessarily become the key independent variable and will overshadow other contributions. There are also two kinds of induced suggestibility (biological and psychological) which are really weaker forms of brain control and mind control, in which the immediate indoctrination has a lesser but still paramount weight. However, its significance is much less in two other situations: where unsatisfied persons are “pushed” to join the movement as a refuge from society and where they are “pulled” in by the perceived utopian promise of the movement.

Dr. Barker’s English data plus her review of data compiled by psychiatrist Marc Galanter (1980, 1989) from his study of a Moonist indoctrination center in Los Angeles, allow the researcher to conclude that, of those prospective recruits who actually visit a Unification center, no more than 0.05% will be associated with the movement two years later. If the number of persons attending an introductory two-day workshop is taken as 100%, then 29-30% will attend the follow-up seven-day workshop, 17-18% will attend the 21-day workshop, and 8-9% will join the Church as a full-time member, living in a UC center and working full-time for the movement (Barker, 1984, 246-248). Dr. Galanter’s study of 104 potential converts stops here, but out of Barker’s sample of 1,017 persons at a London center, only 5% were still full-time members after a year, and 4% were still hanging in after two years.

It appears, then, that very few potential converts are actually converted and about half of the latter drop out by two years. This fact as well as indications arising from interview, observational and questionnaire data that different individuals responded differently to the seminars, allow Barker to reject those formulations such as “brain control” or induced suggestibility which presuppose the overwhelming efficaciousness of the immediate indoctrinational environment. Barker’s analysis also indicates that those persons who might appear most suggestible – isolated, drifting, unhappy young adults – tended either not to join up or to join temporarily and leave. Persisting converts compare favorably with “the ones that got away” on various measures of psychological stability. Barker analyzes deceptive and manipulative elements in the indoctrinational process, but it is her conclusion that most recruits make their affiliative decision voluntarily. The persuasive stimuli presented by indoctrinators acts differently on different persons, thus by the criteria of Zimbardo et. al., brainwashing is not occurring.

Dr. Barker’s finding are partly compatible with the findings of Saul Levine, a Toronto psychiatrist, who studied several hundred young persons who had made “radical departures” from their families and other conventional institutions through involvement in radical and close-knit social, religious and political movements (Levine, 1984ab).[14] Dr. Levine finds that “more than 90%” of such departures “end in a return home within two years,” and “virtually all joiners eventually abandon their groups . . they resume their previous lives and find gratification in the middle-class world they had totally abjured. In short, they use their radical departures to grow up.” Levine’s analysis is clearly convergent with Erikson’s conceptualization of the adolescent “identity crisis” in which adolescents and young persons must wrestle with the problem of achieving a sense of “wholeness” and “inner identity,” in the sense of an awareness of who s/he fundamentally is as a person relative to social institutions and roles beyond one’s family of origin. Lacking the unconditional love provided by parents in childhood and having to abandon unconditional faith in parental guidance, young persons “find they cannot proceed into adulthood without the love and faith that typify childhood.” When problems arise regarding compensatory intimate relations with friends and lovers, a radical departure may provide the basis for a more extreme process of reconstructing love, faith and identity through a seeming absolute commitment to belief systems which often “closely match the ideals of the joiner’s family,” (1984b, 25). Becoming disenchanted with the radical group and disaffiliating also contributes to the consolidation of a sense of personal autonomy and identity.

Levine discusses a multistage recruitment process through which some individuals are drawn into radical groups while others are in effect screened out as unsuitable. Though often somewhat manipulative, the process is viewed as fundamentally voluntary. Levine estimates that only five out of 100 individuals who are initially approached by recruiters make an actual site visit, and out of every 500 who are approached, only one person actually joins. “If recruitment techniques are so sinister” asks Levine, “why do they so rarely work?” (1984b, 27).

The Barker and Levine studies indicate that alternative religions exhibit a substantial voluntary turnover. Substantial research by sociologists of religion supports this conclusion.[15] High demand groups such as the Unification Church and Hare Krishna have been like revolving doors through which recruits have been moving in and out. This has not always been apparent. In the 1970s and early 80s concerned citizens, journalists and social scientists focused largely on converts entering strange cults, “few were aware of a steady stream of disaffected members exiting these movements by the back door . . . popular conceptions of brainwashing most likely precluded any suspicion of mass voluntary defections” (Wright and Ebaugh, 1993, 118).

A number of studies indicate that leavers are more likely to fiercely recriminate against the groups from which they have emerged and to allege that they were “brainwashed” if they have been forcibly removed from a group and if they had substantial contact with “anticult” networks and associated processes such as “deprogramming,” “rehabilitation,” “exit counseling,” ex-member support groups, etc.[16] Other ex-members who leave groups voluntarily and do not have substantial contact with anti-cult networks tend to be less recriminatory and less likely to express the highly stereotyped ideology centered around mind control claims.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is solid evidence that persons who have been involved in a particular controversial totalist movement are likely to have been involved in other, often more than one, other esoteric movements, i.e., to have developing “conversion careers” (Richardson, 1978). In his acclaimed study of converts to the Unification Church, Marc Galanter found that 90% of the “Moonies” in his study had previously been involved in another new religious movement (Galanter, 1989, 57).


The preceding sections have discredited the extreme extrinsic model and have enhanced the plausibility of alternative models (Anthony and Robbins, 1984, 1996) which envision the commitment of devotees to austere, totalistic sects arising from an interaction of individual totalist proclivities and group properties including ideology, leadership and indoctrination. Sectarian devotees are not helpless, brainwashed “cult victims” although they may sometimes belong to highly authoritarian and somewhat manipulative movements which aspire to discipline and control their adherents.

Over two decades ago, one of the present authors (Anthony, 1979-80) identified various positive consequences associated with joining alternative religious movements in the 1960s and 70s (see also Robbins 1988). Pro-social, functional and adaptive consequences included the rehabilitation of drug users, rewarding interpersonal relationships, renewed vocational commitment, suicide prevention, relief from depression and anxiety, psychological integration, etc.

In effect the model which implicitly or explicitly informed these observations was a deprivation model in which anomie related to moral ambiguity or lack of “deep” interpersonal relations produces psychic distress which in turn leads to an alienation from the conventional and a willingness to experiment with social innovations and heterodox movements. In some of these movements converts do find, at least temporarily, relief from distress (Galanter, 1989) or spiritual and communal gratification although sometimes these rewards incur various and significant costs. We presently incline toward a variant of this model grounded in Erik Erikson’s posited sequence for youth confronted with impending identity diffusion (see above) who initially develop negative identities often associated with social alienation and acting out and subsequently may become involved in totalist movements which encourage the emergence of extropunitive contrast identities (our term). Such individuals come to define themselves largely in terms of what they stridently reject (“contrast symbols”) such that they provisionally heal fragmentation of the ego by identifying with an idealized (often ideologically grounded) self-image and projecting negativity and inadequacy onto scapegoats whose demonization is related to the movement’s ideology (Anthony and Robbins, 1995). In this way absolutist sects both selectively recruit predisposed individuals and further encourage and intensify their dispositions through social reinforcement and socialization patterns congruent with movements’ beliefs and goals.[17] As Lifton has emphasized, what transpires is a pattern of interaction between individual personalities and movements. (In contrast the extrinsic model posits a movement created, totally ego-alien “false self” which is simply “imposed” on the hapless convert).

Contrast identities, as the authors have noted elsewhere, are often linked to groups whose worldviews we have previously designated, Exemplary Dualism, an apocalyptic motif “in which contemporary sociopolitical or socioreligious forces are viewed as exemplifying absolute contrast categories in terms of not only moral virtue but also of eschatology and the millennial destiny of humankind” (Robbins and Anthony, 1995:242). Originally applied by the authors to the symbolic universe of the Unification Church (Anthony and Robbins, 1978) a seminar student of Dick Anthony subsequently published an application to Jim Jones and the ill-fated Peoples Temple (Jones, 1989). The contrast identities of devotees become anchored in the extreme dualist worldview of movements, which regard certain putatively wicked and antagonistic outsiders as embodying demonic, world historical forces, e.g., the Papacy is the “Whore of Babylon,” the Tsar is AntiChrist, the New Age-Occult milieu is Satan’s instrument to destroy the Church, etc. More generally the exemplary dualist term might be applied to social movements which depend for their morale on sharp contrasts with groups and cultures outside the movement. Group members define themselves in opposition to such “contrast symbols” and thereby gain a sense of purpose, wholeness and meaningful commitment as well as a conviction of personal righteousness and purity. Troubled persons with fragmented egos and “negative identities” are likely converts and who experience temporary relief from anxiety or depression.

In Galanter’s (1989, [1999]) important study of converts to the Unification church in the 1980s, there did appear to be a lot of troubled or alienated young persons: only a fraction of those who began college actually graduated. “A sizeable portion (39%) felt they had experienced serious emotional difficulties in the past” which had led 30% to seek professional help and 6% to be hospitalized. Sixty-five percent had used marijuana on a daily basis and 14% had used heroin (Galanter, 1989, 34-35, 38-60). They had high levels of self-reported psychological distress (compared to a matched control sample) which, however, declined significantly over the course of conversion, while drug use also declined very markedly. The decline in feeling of psychological distress was directly proportional to the degree of cohesiveness they felt toward the group (1989, 35), which did, however, make losing faith in the beliefs or contemplating disaffiliation somewhat stressful. The “relief effect” or decline in psychic distress was correlated with the individual’s variable feeling of solidarity with the group and with acceptance of group beliefs. The “relief effect” is thus mediated by the affiliative attitudes of social cohesiveness and shared beliefs – that is, by both social and cognitive modalities.

It is possible to question the (essentially self-reported) “relief effect,” or at least to not take it entirely at face value. Converts affirm a sense of well-being, and they are less likely to make such a claim before they join; yet there is a rather high defection rate. In any case, as one review essayist notes, there is little evidence that merely becoming committed to the group has really resolved Galanter’s respondents’ personality conflict. “The ‘relief effect’ could be temporary and/or superficial” (Saliba, 1997, 107).

A different perspective comes from sociologist Robert Simmonds (1978) who poses the question “conversion or addiction.” Personality inventories administered to 96 members of a “Jesus Movement” group in the early 1970s yielded a profile of highly anxious individuals who were very dependent upon external authority. Like Galanter’s Unificationists the subjects reported high levels of drug use and other deviance despite “relatively affluent” middle class backgrounds. The subjects expressed happiness and strong satisfaction with their involvement in what appeared to be a rather authoritarian and regimented communal sect with a strong fundamentalist belief system as well as a commitment to “serving the Lord.” The questionnaires were re-administered 2   mon months later after the subjects had undergone an intensive resocialization in the movement’s leadership training program. Symptomatic behavior such as drug use had declined markedly, but there did not appear to be much change with respect to underlying character problems. Simmonds infers that the devotees were essentially “switching addictions” and that conversion to the Jesus Movement did not involve significant personality change. Instead, the subjects had found a secure and stable authoritarian setting to facilitate “a continuation of the same basic psychological patterns had by these people before they joined the group” (1978, 127).

We will now briefly look at some communal “eastern” mystical groups which one might expect to be rather different from the fundamentalist “Jesus Movement” converts or “Moonies.” Richardson (1995) reviews several studies involving the administration of personality inventories to followers of the late, controversial, Shree Bhagawan Rajneesh in Oregon. The “Rajneeshees” were generally older than the typical Moonies or most other “cultists” (even the fairly recent converts). They were very highly educated, often creative, social service professionals, affluent, over 50% female and with background which often entailed involvements in other unconventional spiritual and therapeutic groups (Latkin, et. al., 1987). They reported fairly high levels of life-satisfaction and low levels of perceived stress. Their perceived level of social support was slightly higher and the report of recent depressive symptoms was lower than normative population baselines. Scores on public and private anxiety and private self-consciousness scales indicated introspective persons less concerned with other’s opinions of them. They perceived themselves to be in control of their destinies. They had strong self-concepts with, however, suggestion of a predilection toward antinomianism (i.e., “norm-doubting” types predominated over “norm-favoring” types). The overall profile seems to undercut the plausibility of an extrinsic model of psychologically coerced induction, however, it has been noted that the imbalance of personality types in terms of too many antinomian types may have contributed to the demise of the Rajneeshpuram community in Oregon (Sundberg, et.al., 1992), which more or less self-destructed after an escalating sequence of conflict with neighbors and state authorities culminating in violence directed by subleaders (particularly Ma Sheela, who was criminally prosecuted and imprisoned) and the guru’s deportation (Carter, 1990).

Personality measures administered after the traumatic forced departure of the Guru showed a marked rise in the depression scores, which went from below to above the baseline for the general population. Perhaps subjects’ earlier happiness had been precarious in the sense that it required integration into a close-knit group and could not survive the apparent disconfirmation of the group’s expectations embodied by the triumphs of the group’s adversaries. (There may thus be hazards in happiness, stability and psychic integration grounded in movement participation). It is worth noting that some critical (but not stereotyped “anti-cult”) works on Rajneesh’s movement and its doomed Oregon settlement suggest that the attitudes of members and particularly of the inner circle of leadership were redolent of elitism, antinomianism, contempt for outsiders and for persons and groups blocking the expansion of the Oregon community, violent proclivities, contrast identities and “paranoid” concern for internal security and rigid boundary-maintenance (Carter, 1992; Fitzgerald, 1991; Milne, 1986).

Similarly there is substantial critical literature on the Hare Krishna sect which is now in decline in the United States. A celebrated study by two journalists, which uncovered the story behind two murders of devotees (one guru ultimately went to prison), also reveals abundant evidence of spiritual elitism, antinomianism, intense contempt for “Karmis” (non-devotees enmeshed in Karmic entanglements who are said to live to kill and rape and hate devotees) paranoia and anticipation of violent conflicts ahead (Huber and Gruson, 1990).[18]

There is particularly sizeable corpus of personality studies of Krishna devotees, recently reviewed by Richardson (1995). To very briefly summarize, there is strong evidence of selectivity for certain character traits and a tendency for acculturation in the group to reinforce elements selected for in the recruitment process (Weiss and Mendoza, 1990). The evidence for selection for certain personality types as well as the absence of serious psychopathology undermines the relevance of extrinsic brainwashing and induced pathology models. There were the usual reports (Ross, 1983) of persons from privileged backgrounds becoming involved in deviant behavior, identity crises, rejection of parental authority and generalized spiritual seeking prior to conversion, followed by dramatic declines in drug use and social alienation, plus self-reports of satisfaction (Poling and Kenny, 1986).

Certain interesting results arise, however, from the administration of instruments such as the MMPI, The (Jungian) Meyers-Briggs Inventory, the Rokeach Dogmatism Scale and other personality measures. In one study, 93 devotees appeared to be markedly homogenous in terms of a character type described as sensate-oriented, pleasure-seeking, but anxious about a perceived recurrent danger of falling victim to an endless pursuit of sense gratification. Such persons were particularly attracted to a regimented sect which combines puritanical rejection of a range of intoxicants, and strict regulation of sex behavior with ecstatic spiritual practices such as rhythmic, repetitive chanting. Thus, sense pleasure is rejected on the mundane level but accepted on the transcendent level (Poling and Kenny, 1986, 108). Adherents also tended toward dogmatic thinking and intolerance regarding the beliefs and lifestyles of others (1986, 135). An additional study found devotees scoring high on compulsivity: they have a strong need for order (males’ scores are significantly higher than normal range). Devotees also score high on social conformity and emotional stability and low on trust (but scores were within the normal range). Richardson (1995, 15-16) notes the agreement of the Weiss-Comrey and the Poling-Kenny studies with respect to dogmatic thinking, judgmental constraints on latent impulsivity, and rigidity in certain areas, as well as the absence of serious pathology.

Authoritarianism and Totalism

It is suggestive that certain interrelated traits seem to show up in a number of studies in which personality inventories were administered to participants in close-knit, disciplined, clearly bounded communal sects which demand behavioral conformity and adherence to distinctive beliefs from the devotees. Although configurations vary from group to group, the observed traits to relate somewhat to the authoritarian personality, particularly as reconstructed by Bob Altemeyer. Altemeyer (1988) redefines authoritarianism in terms of three key components: Conventionalization (social conformity, strong support for normative ideas); Authoritarian Submission (deference to hierarchical superiors and authorities, dependency on authoritarian leadership and decision-making); and Authoritarian Aggression (extropunitiveness and hostility directed against minorities and to socially designated objects of scorn).

As we have seen, there is suggestive though perhaps not conclusive evidence that elements linked to the personality variables authoritarianism-dogmatism characterize the devotees of some of the controversial, structurally authoritarian and “totalistic” religious movements of “cults” although little direct research has been done on “authoritarian personalities” among controversial cults.[19] On the other hand, a number of studies have produced correlations between authoritarianism or dogmatism and Protestant fundamentalism, and between both authoritarianism and dogmatism and varieties of social prejudice and scapegoating (Altemeyer, 1981, 1988).[20]

Below we very tentatively suggest nine characteristics which appear to us to be shared by authoritarian personalities, fundamentalists and members or leaders of authoritarian cults such as Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, etc. (see also Anthony and Robbins, 1995a).

1)    Separatism or the heightened sensitivity and tension regarding group boundaries. This may be equivalent to “Authoritarian Aggression” and involves rejection and punitive attitudes toward deviants, minorities and outsiders.

2)    Theocratic leanings or willingness to see a future utopian state enforce moral and ideological preferences at the expense of pluralism or church-state separation.

3)    Authoritarian submission involving dependency on and deference to strong leaders

4)    Conventionalism and conformity (there are conspicuous exceptions, however, in terms of egregiously antinomian groups).

5)    Evangelism or concern with proselytization (there may be exceptions here in terms of groups which have isolated themselves in such a way to inhibit outreach – such groups may be particularly volatile).

6)    Apoocalypticism/Millennarianism

7)    Coercive tendencies in terms of either punitive reactions to dissidence and diversity within the group or willingness to have a utopian state suppress dissidents.

8)    Consequentialism in terms of perceiving moral virtue or ideological correctness producing tangible rewards for believers.

9)    Strong beliefs and use of doctrinal correctness as a criterion of acceptance.


The foregoing sections of this article have demonstrated that the theory of coercive conversion embodied in brainwashing formulations have been disconfirmed both with respect to the original research on Communist thought reform and also by a substantial body or research on new religious movements or cults. The present authors earlier published an analysis of the history of brainwashing formulations in both settings, which they refer to as “first phase” and “second phase” brainwashing formulations. (Anthony and Robbins 1995b) They also describe a “third phase” of brainwashing formulations that have recently arisen in an attempt to surmount the definitive disconfirmations of these earlier stages of the evolution of brainwashing formulations.

In order to understand this recent stage the evolution of the brainwashing concept, it is important to realize that neither of the earlier phases of brainwashing formulations were actually used as a basis for methodologically sound scientific research. The original brainwashing explanation of Communist influence was developed by the American CIA as a social weapon in a propaganda/disinformation program. It was intended to undermine the authenticity of Communist influence in the Cold War era by interpreting it as the result of a sinister psychotechnology rather than the genuine interest its adherents.

The primary use of second phase brainwashing arguments has been as an ideological rationale for practical actions by families and the courts to counteract the influence of new religions by explaining conversions to them as resulting form coercive influence. (The plausibility of the cultic brainwashing argument has always been based upon its claimed foundation in research on Communist thought reform rather than in actual research on new religions.) In many civil lawsuits against new religions, anticult experts have used the cultic brainwashing theory as a basis for testimony to the effect that ex-members had joined a particular new religion against their will and as a result were owed damages because of alleged emotional damages arising from such involuntary participation. From the middle 1970s on into the middle 1990s such cultic brainwashing testimony and legal actions were often successful in punishing and even crippling new religions as the result of the imposition of large compensatory and punitive damages, sometimes as high as 20 to 30 million dollars and sometimes forcing a particular new religion into bankruptcy and even dissolution.

Largely because of concern over the effects upon the civil liberties of new religions caused by testimony based upon the cultic brainwashing concept, substantial research that evaluated the coercive conversion idea was conducted by scholars of new religions. As we have seen in this article, most of this research tended to disconfirm the cultic brainwashing idea.

In addition, the senior author of this chapter has published a sequence of articles and book chapters (some of which were co-authored by Robbins) demonstrating the lack of congruence between cultic brainwashing formulations and its claimed theoretical foundation of research on Communist thought reform. These articles also demonstrated scientific and the constitutional problems in the admission of cultic brainwashing testimony as well as defects in the legal reasoning that construed the cultic brainwashing theory as a basis for legal actions against nrms.

Professional associations (the American Psychology Association, the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion) submitted a series of Amicus Curiae briefs in the appeals of legal decisions based upon cultic brainwashing testimony, which argued that such testimony should not have been admitted because of the body of research disconfirming it and also because of its inconsistency with its claimed theoretical foundation of research on Communist thought reform and the conflicts with constitutional and scientific standards of admissibility as demonstrated by Anthony and Robbins’ publications.

In addition, Anthony has used the arguments developed in these articles as the basis for his consultation and expert testimony in over forty legal cases based upon a cultic brainwashing theory and testimony since the early 1980s. His forensic activities have been largely successful in limiting the effect of or excluding brainwashing testimony from admissibility in the legal cases in which he has served as an expert.[21]

As a result of these 3 factors, i.e. the body of research disconfirming the coercive conversion concept in nrms, the amicus curiae briefs submitted by professional associations and the publications and forensic psychological activities of Anthony, cultic brainwashing theory and the legal cases built upon it have been generally discredited and marginalized in the American context in which it originated.

In the wake of such reverses to its practical and academic standing, a new third stage of brainwashing arguments has emerged, the most prominent of which are the so-called “exit costs” interpretations of the brainwashing argument as developed most prominently by Benjamen Zablocki and Steven Kent. Anthony recently published a long and detailed critique of formulations based upon the exit costs interpretation of the brainwashing idea, particularly as developed in the publications of Zablocki (Anthony, 2001.

We include a précis of this critique here because the exit costs argument claims to reinterpret the brainwashing idea in a way that rescues its scientific plausibility from the substantial disconfirmation of its claim to demonstrate coercive conversions to nrms discussed in the foregoing sections of this chapter. The basic exit costs reinterpretation of the brainwashing idea is that brainwashing is a theory of coercive commitment to groups and their ideology rather than a theory of coercive conversion to groups in the first place. In other words, according to Zablocki and Kent, the brainwashing processes that psychologically imprison nrms members occur after they have already made a superficial conversion to the group rather than causing that conversion in the first place.

Zablocki’s Argument: In his recent articles, Zablocki claims that brainwashing is a valid scientific concept that has been supported by considerable research both upon Communist coercive persuasion and upon coercive influence tactics in new religions or cults. (1997, 104-107). He acknowledges, however, that brainwashing is a concept that is widely regarded in sociology and psychology as being without scientific foundation (Zablocki, 1997, 96-97; 1998, 217), and says that many scholars in those disciplines regards it as being an evaluative rather than a scientific concept which is empirically untreatable because of its definitional imprecision and other epistemological flaws.

He contends that such a pejorative view of the brainwashing concept is based upon a misunderstanding of its true nature and of the validly scientific research supporting it. (1997, 100) According to Zablocki, such misunderstanding of the concept was brought about by the use of a distorted caricature of the concept the development of which was motivated by legal and pecuniary goals rather than by an honest concern with the scientific understanding of the phenomenon. (1997, 100-101). He claims that his recent articles straighten out this misperception of the nature of the brainwashing concept and that they restore it to its proper scientific status. (1997, 102, 106)

According to Zablocki the primary ideologically motivated misinterpretation of the scientific brainwashing concept is that it has to do with illicit recruitment mechanisms when it is really a concept concerning influence processes which bring about addictive commitments to worldviews to which the targets of brainwashing have already been converted prior to their being brainwashed. He states:

Popular usage has come to imply that brainwashing has something to do with recruitment mechanisms when, on the contrary, it has mostly to do with socio-emotional exit costs. An examination of any of the foundational literature makes it very clear that that what these researchers were attempting to explain was the persistence of ideological conversion after the stimulus was removed, not how subjects were initially hooked into the ideology. (1997, 100)

In his recent brainwashing articles, Zablocki refers to his approach to interpreting such “foundational literature” as “exit cost analysis” and in the subtitle to his 1998 article he refers to such exit cost analysis as a “new approach to the scientific study of brainwashing”. (His claim that his approach is new is somewhat confusing since he also claims in his articles that it is well known that such exit cost analysis has always been the primary theme of validly scientific brainwashing theory and research.) Zablocki claims that his formulation has identified the moderate and scientifically testable essence of the brainwashing paradigm (1997, 106), as opposed to the caricature of the brainwashing model which has been misused for ideological and legal purposes.

In a footnote to the above passage (1997, No. 8) Zablocki identifies the “foundational literature” of the brainwashing concept referred to therein as the 1961 books by Robert Lifton and Edgar Schein in which they reported their research upon Communist thought reform in China around the time of the Korean War. These are also the books that are normally claimed as the primary theoretical foundation for anticult brainwashing testimony in legal trials. Thus a primary burden of his approach would seem to be making good on his claim that his interpretation of this foundational literature of the brainwashing concept, i.e. Lifton’s and Schein’s 1961 books, is different in kind from the epistemologically spurious version used in legal trials.

Brainwashing as Exit Costs In the Foundational Literature

The novel feature of Zablocki’s version of the CIA model, when compared to previous versions of the cultic brainwashing model, is the surprising claim Lifton’s and Schein’s research on thought reform did not demonstrate involuntary conversion of its victims to a new Communist worldview but rather the coercive intensification of commitment to a Communist worldview to which the victims of thought reform were already committed.

However, none of Schein’s or Lifton’s subjects were Communists before they were subjected to thought reform in the sense of having adopted, provisionally or otherwise, the Communist worldview. What could Zablocki possibly mean when he makes this assertion, particularly when he makes this assertion so central to his formulation of a brainwashing argument?

Could he be implying that because their Western subjects were imprisoned in Communist thought reform prisons, and Lifton’s Chinese subjects were living within a Communist society, that these conditions were somehow equivalent to their having provisionally adopted a Communist worldview, and thus that they had already been “hooked into the ideology” before being subjected to thought reform. But how does that follow? In our reading none of their subjects had adopted a Communist worldview before they were subjected to thought reform. (This is particularly obvious with their Western subjects, who were imprisoned during the thought reform process;. if they were already seeing the world through the lens of Communist ideology, why would they have had to be imprisoned in order for them to undergo thought reform?)

Elsewhere Zablocki seems to be saying that Lifton’s and Schein’s subjects were already Communists prior to thought reform in the sense of already having joined a Communist organization. He states:

Brainwashing may be defined as a set of transactions between a charismatically led collectivity and an isolated agent of the collectivity with the goal of transforming the agent into a deployable agent. In the terminology I am using here, there exist three levels of affiliation in such collectivities: recruits, agents, and deployable agents. A recruit is a person who is considering membership in the group and perhaps is also being courted by the group. An agent is a person who has already made the commitment to become a member of the group and accept its goals. A deployable agent is a person who has internalized the group’s goals to such an extent that he or she can be counted on with high probability to act so as to implement those goals even when free of direct surveillance and even when those goals run counter to the individual’s personal goals.
The target of brainwashing is always an individual who has already joined the group. (1998, 221).

It seems clear that Zablocki is here claiming that brainwashing is only used with respect to people who have already adopted an alternative worldview, i.e. “agents” or “ordinary members”, “who have already joined the group”, but who have not yet become so-called “deployable agents”. Thus, Zablocki seems to be contending that Schein’s and Lifton’s subjects had already joined Communist groups because they were existing within Communist prisons or living in a Communist society? But that doesn’t follow either. None of their subjects ever joined Communist organizations, either before or after they were subjected to thought reform.

Anthony demonstrates in this in his 2001 article on Zablocki’s perspective, none of Lifton’s or Schein’s subjects ever became recruits, agents, or deployable agents of Communism by adopting Communist worldviews or joining Communist organizations, even after they had been subjected to thought reform much less before. And none of them ever had trouble repudiating any degree of interest they may have had in Communism after they left the thought reform environment; the only kind of exit costs they encountered were the difficulty of getting out of prison camp.

Thus, the assumptions that Zablocki adopts in defining a supposedly “new” exit costs definition of brainwashing, in an attempt to differentiate his perspective from earlier brainwashing arguments, do not hold up to any kind of informed scrutiny.

Pre-motives: It would seem that Zablocki’s insistence that Lifton’s and Schein’s subjects were Communists (recruits or agents) before being brainwashed involves a strained analogy between Communist imprisonment and becoming a member of a new religion. This analogy doesn’t hold up. Imprisonment does not indicate that a person has adopted a worldview or joined a group, whereas those who voluntarily become members of new religions have accepted, at least provisionally the worldview of the group they have joined.

Zablocki’s insistence that brainwashing consists of coercive change in level of commitment to totalistic ideology, rather than coercive conversion to totalistic ideology in the first place, is all the more puzzling when other passages are taken into account in which he seems clearly to define brainwashing as coercive conversion to a new worldview. (See for instance (1997, 104-105; 1971, 239, 243-246, 251-252, 257, 282; 1980, 7-10, 357 and throughout)

It seems likely that Zablocki’s tactical ambiguity on this key aspect of his theory can be explained by his attempt to evade the implications of the body of research on both Communist indoctrination practices and upon new religious movements [NRMs], which disconfirm the contention of both 1st and 2nd stage brainwashing formulations that brainwashing produces, purely through extrinsic techniques of influence, involuntary conversion to a new worldview.

Research with respect to Communist indoctrination practices as well as the considerable body of research on NRMs discussed above (Wuthnow, Richardson, Zimbardo and Hartley, Barker, Anthony and Robbins, and many others) seems to have rather conclusively established that the “invasion of the body snatchers” view of conversion to NRMs as resulting primarily from the efficacy of extrinsic techniques of proselytization is inaccurate. The research demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of converts to NRMs (including most plaintiffs in brainwashing trials) fit a “seeker” profile of people who were disillusioned with mainstream worldviews and were actively searching for alternative worldviews prior to their conversion to NRMs. Clearly if brainwashing perspectives were to survive such voluminous disconfirmations, and the repeated findings by the courts that cultic brainwashing testimony could not be allowed because of its lack of scientific support, some revision of the involuntary conversion aspect of the CIA brainwashing model is necessary.

According to Zablocki and other brainwashing theorists, brainwashing consists of overwhelming or irresistible “extrinsic” influence to which the inner qualities of the person are irrelevant, as opposed to normal “intrinsic” influence, resulting from an interaction between the inner characteristics of the person and outside influence. (For a book-length discussion and analysis of the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic psychological paradigms of influence and motivation see Pervin, 1984. For a discussion of the application of this distinction to brainwashing vs. totalitarian influence approaches to social influence see Anthony, 1996, pgs. 221-225.)

Zablocki repeatedly claims that the brainwashing paradigm does not take into account individual differences between people who are being exposed to brainwashing in accounting for how such influence occurs or which person will be successfully brainwashed. He states: “it is situational and relational factors rather than predispositions that help us to predict this [successful brainwashing] phenomenon” (Zablocki, 1998, 225). See also: Zablocki, 1998, 222, 235; 1993, 83-84; 1997, 101; Singer and Lalich, 1995, 15-20.

The extrinsic influence character of brainwashing formulations is essential to establish that such influence is “involuntary”. Sociologists have demonstrated that contemporary “post-modern” (pluralistic, multicultural) society is characterized by a focus upon individual autonomy as the prime determinant of authentic personhood. Unreflective conformity is the mark of the inauthentic or “false” self. (Winnicott, …)

In order to be a genuine person in the contemporary, multicultural society, individuals are expected to independently reflect upon and consciously choose their own identities and worldviews from among the pluralistic mixture of alternatives with which they are presented. Consequently, if a person is viewed as having passively accepted an identity and worldview without having evaluated it in relation to their own distinctive inner characteristics and organic development of authentic personhood, he/she is viewed as not being a “real” or authentic person. However, in practice all of us choose our identities, worldviews and lifestyles as a result of an indeterminate mixture of outside influence and inner reflection and choice. Thus most of us are unsure of the degree to which we are conformists or authentic “self-actualizers”.

One function of the brainwashing myth may be that it provides its believers with a line at which social influence overwhelms inner authenticity. By doing so this myth creates for its believers a definition of false personhood, thus creating a stereotype by contrast with which they can reaffirm their own supposedly authentic personhood . Unfortunately for the scientific credibility of the brainwashing idea, this aspect of the paradigm has been disconfirmed by three important sources of data: research on conversion to Communist and other totalitarian political ideologies; research upon conversion to alternative religions; and statements by brainwashing theorists themselves upon intrinsic motivation for joining new religions.

The question of whether internal motivation for joining new religions is an important predictor of who responds favorably to proselytization attempts has been repeatedly answered in the affirmative by the very same anticult brainwashing authors who elsewhere (often in the same publications in which they also deny it) claim that conversion and commitment is solely determined by extrinsic influence. The types of pre-existing motivation for joining new religions affirmed by brainwashing theorists fall into two broad categories: 1) alienation or anomie relative to mainstream values and social institutions, resulting in a pattern of “seeking” for non-traditional alternatives; 2) family dysfunction combined with character logical predispositions to respond favorably to totalitarian ideologies. (See, e.g. Halperin )

Virtually all brainwashing authors describe widespread social change since the 1960’s as resulting in widespread alienation or anomie which in turn motivates young people to seek for and join non-traditional religions. (See Zablocki, ––––____) Such authors seem not to realize that accounting for responsiveness to proselytization in this way essentially negates the claim that people involuntarily join new religions primarily for extrinsic reasons. Obviously, even in periods of social turmoil, not all members of society are equally alienated from traditional values and institutions. Alienation, therefore, differs in degree from person and person, and the more alienated are more apt to seek alternative worldviews and institutions.

Zablocki’s recent brainwashing articles are theoretical and speculative rather than being accounts of actual research on new religions. He claims, however, to base his brainwashing theory upon research on minority religions and communes that he conducted and described in earlier books (Zablocki, 1971, 1980). Both of these books adopt the social change producing individual differences in anomie/alienation view of why particular people are more likely to join new religions. (1971, ___; 1980, ___)

Indeed, in his 1980 book, Alienation and Charisma, alienation is one of the two master concepts (the other being charisma) by which he organizes his data. In this book, alienation is clearly treated as a motive which predisposes individuals to being influenced by charismatic social movements, with higher levels of alienation predisposing individuals to choose more authoritarian movements or, in Zablocki’s current terminology, “cults”. (In his basic thesis in this book, alienation is cured by involvement in a charismatic social movement, with more extreme degrees of alienation requiring more authoritarian and extreme forms of charismatic organization for its cure.)

Thus Zablocki himself is, in this former incarnation as the author of these earlier publications, a proponent of what he now labels the “seekership conjecture” school of new religions scholarship (1998, 234-236), a theoretical orientation that he now sees as conflicting with his current brainwashing perspective. In one of the theoretically incoherent and self-contradictory twists characteristic of his brainwashing articles, he now claims that his earlier seekership tomes are actually the empirical basis for his new brainwashing formulation. (He also self-contradictorily affirms the anomie equals seekership idea in his recent brainwashing articles (1997, ___; 1980, ___).

Interestingly, in footnote 43 in the seekership section of his 1998 article, which lists a number of publications that he considers to be reputable scientific instances of the seekership conjecture, Zablocki lists Robert Lifton’s 1968 article, entitled Protean Man, as one of the examples. In this article, as Zablocki acknowledges in this footnote, Lifton views proteanism, i.e. anomic, relativistic cultural tendencies and the confused and ambiguous self concepts that result from them, as the source of motives for conversion to alternative religious movements. (In his later books on new religious movements, [1993, 10-11 and throughout; 1999, 5, 236-238 ] Lifton uses the proteanism concept as a master concept along with totalism, to explain pre-existing motives, i.e. “seekership”, as an explanation for why people convert to join new religions and totalistic, fundamentalistic, Christian sects [1993, 177-187].) Thus, at that point in his brainwashing article, Zablocki appears to be acknowledging Lifton as a proponent of the seekership explanation of conversion to new religions, whereas elsewhere he views Lifton’s work as the primary theoretical foundation for the brainwashing explanation which he regards as contradictory to the seekership explanation.

These various indications that Zablocki both repudiates and embraces what he refers to as the “seekership” explanation for conversion to new religions are further examples of the theoretical incoherence of his brainwashing formulation, a trait that Anthony discusses in his critique of Zablocki’s exits costs argument as tactical ambiguity.

Disorientation, Defective Thought, Suggestibility and the False Self

The following are the individual elements or hypotheses within Zablocki’s definition of his supposedly “new approach to the scientific study of brainwashing”. (Below we evaluate the relationship of these individual elements/hypotheses to the theoretical foundation which Zablocki contends supports their role in brainwashing.)

1.    Absence of Pre-motives: People who join new religions cults are not seeking alternatives to mainstream worldviews prior to their membership in the new group.

2.    Disorientation: New religions or cults induce irrational altered states of consciousness as the core technique in seducing people into giving up their existing worldview. (Zablocki refers to this primitive state of consciousness as disorientation; other brainwashing theorists have referred to it as hypnosis, dissociation, trance, etc. but there is no meaningful distinction between these various terms for primitive consciousness as they are used by brainwashing theorists, i.e. they are functional synonyms within the brainwashing worldview.)

3.    Defective Cognition: In the disoriented state essential to brainwashing the person has a significantly reduced cognitive capacity to evaluate the truth or falsity of worldviews with which he or she is confronted.

4.    Suggestibility: As a result of externally induced disorientation and defective cognitive capacity, the victim of brainwashing is highly “suggestible”, i.e. prone to accept as her/his own ideas and worldviews which are recommended to him or her by the person or organization that has induced the defective cognitive state.

5.    Coercive or involuntary imposition of a defective or false worldview. The above sequence of criteria of brainwashing results in the involuntary imposition of a defective or false worldview which anyone in a rational state of mind would have rejected.

6.    Coercive imposition of a false self. As a result of the brainwashing process, the person manifests a pseudo-identity or shadow self which has been involuntarily imposed upon him/her by brainwashing

7.    Deployable agency. The involuntarily imposed false self and defective worldview persist after the brainwashing process has been completed, and as a result the brainwashed person retains his commitment to the new self and worldview even when he or she is not in direct contact with the group doing the brainwashing.

8.    Exit Costs: It is extremely difficult for the person to later repudiate his new worldview and false self-self-conception because he no longer has the capacity to rationally evaluate these choices.

All of these hypotheses were aspects of the original, generally discredited CIA brainwashing model that Zablocki claims to be replacing with his “new approach”. As we shall see, all of them were disconfirmed by generally accepted research on Communist thought reform, including the research which Zablocki claims supplies the primary theoretical foundation of his formulation.

Basically, Zablocki’s statement of the CIA brainwashing theory conflicts with generally accepted research on Communist thought reform in the same ways as did second stage perspectives, but he has added a new level of tactical ambiguity to his argument.

At its core, Zablocki’s publications on brainwashing affirm the same characteristics of allegedly involuntary influence as did first and second stage brainwashing formulations, e.g. those of Hunter, Singer and Ofshe. For instance, he asserts that disorientation and a suspension of critical rationality are essential to the brainwashing process. He states:

The core hypothesis is that, under certain circumstances, an individual can be subject to persuasive influences so overwhelming that they actually restructure one’s core beliefs and worldview and profoundly modify one’s self-conception. The sort of persuasion posited by the brainwashing conjecture is aimed at somewhat different goals than the sort of persuasion practiced by bullies or by salesman and teachers. …The more radical sort of persuasion posited by the brainwashing conjecture utilizes extreme stress and disorientation along with ideological enticement to create a conversion experience that persists for some time after the stress and pressure have been removed….To be considered brainwashing this process must result in (a) effects that persist for a significant amount of time after the orchestrated manipulative stimuli are removed and (b) an accompanying dread of disaffiliation which makes it extremely difficult for the subject to even contemplate life apart from the group. (Zablocki, 1997, 104-105, emphasis mine)

Within this quote in which Zablocki defines the core of his brainwashing formulation, the reader may recognize the very same altered states/suggestibility/overwhelmed will concept that: 1) constituted the essence of the CIA brainwashing theory described above; 2) is typically used as the primary basis for cultic brainwashing legal suits.

The “profoundly modified self” referred to by Zablocki in the above quote as characteristic of brainwashing is essentially the same as the false self or “pseudo-identity” which Singer, (1995, 60, 61, 77-79), West and Martin (1994) and other brainwashing theorists regard as an essential aspect of brainwashing. The new identity is viewed as false because it is imposed wholly by extrinsic influence and thus as discontinuous with the pre-existing values and self-conception of the person, i.e. as being “ego-dystonic” to use Zablocki’s appropriation of psychoanalytic terminology (Zablocki, ). (Within psychoanalysis the term “ego-dystonic” refers to distortions of rational thought processes, e.g. delusions, hallucinations, obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors, produced by eruptions of primitive unconscious materials into consciousness. )

Zablocki discusses the false self imposed by brainwashing, which he refers to a “shadow self” in his 1998 article, pgs. 223, 226 and 244. Zablocki states:

The result of this [brainwashing] process, when successful, is to make the individual a deployable agent of the charismatic authority. This is not merely commitment but a form of commitment that does not depend continuous surveillance by the group. A rational choice perspective on the brainwashing model conceives of this process as a fundamental restructuring of the self through a reorganization of preferences. We are talking about change on a deep although not necessarily permanent level. …This “doubling” or creation of a shadow self is something that I have often observed but cannot pretend to understand on more than a metaphoric level. (Zablocki, 1998, 223)[22]

At a later point, Zablocki states:

In these terms, brainwashing can be operationalized as an influence process orchestrated toward the goal of charismatic addiction. ….The identification stage creates the biochemical alignment and the rebirth stage creates the fully addicted shadow self. (Zablocki, 1998, 244)

As Zablocki has stated in his definition of brainwashing ( previously quoted above, 1997, 104-105) in his view the cult is able to overwhelm--and replace with a shadow self--the pre-existing authentic self of the person only by inducing an altered, primitive, state of consciousness in which the person is unable to resist indoctrination. Zablocki refers to this alleged state of primitive consciousness as “disorientation”. This is one of several terms used by brainwashing theorists to refer to this allegedly primitive state of consciousness induced by brainwashing techniques, the other most common ones being hypnosis and dissociation.

It is important to realize that neither disorientation as Zablocki uses the term, nor any of the other terms that brainwashing theorists commonly use for the primitive state of conciseness that they allege is essential to brainwashing, e.g. trance, hypnosis, disorientation, loose cognition, are defined specifically enough to differentiate them from each other nor from normal consciousness.(For instance, Zablocki doesn’t provide a definition for his use of the disorientation term, nor does he supply any citation to scientific research or other literature which could explain to his reader what scientific meaning he intends to mean by the term[23].) These terms thus are functionally equivalent as used by brainwashing theorists, and are in effect synonyms.[24]

Elsewhere, Zablocki elaborates upon the disoriented state which he considers to be the core of the brainwashing process. He states that those in the throes of the brainwashing process:

are, at times, so disoriented that they do appear to resemble zombies or robots: glassy eyes, inability to complete sentences, and fixed eerie smiles are characteristics of disoriented people under randomly varying levels of psychological stress. …
I, myself, happened to witness an entire building full of several hundred highly disoriented Moonies, and it is not an experience that I will ever be able to forget. These people, though gentle and harmless, were frightening in their disjointed affect and loose cognition. (1998, 232)

In this passage, in addition to an extreme level of disorientation resembling that of “zombies or robots”, Zablocki refers to the “loose cognition” which he believes to be characteristic of those who are in the process of being brainwashed. He elaborates in a later section of the same article upon the “loose cognition” and suspension of critical rationality referred to in this passage, which he regards as essential to the brainwashing process (1998, 241-244). He states:

My argument is that his transition to the biological [essential to brainwashing] involves both a suspension of incredulity and an addictive orientation to the alternation of arousal and comfort comparable to the mother-infant attachment. …
At the cognitive level this relationship [between the charismatic cult and its brainwashed victim] involves the suspension of left-brain criticism of right-brain beliefs such that the beliefs are uncritically and enthusiastically adopted. …By preventing even low-level testing of the consequences of our convictions, the [brainwashed] individual is able rapidly to be convinced of a changing flow of beliefs, accepted uncritically. (1998, 241-242, emphasis mine)[25]

 This passage defines the “suggestibility” which Hunter and other brainwashing theorists contend results from the inducement of a primitive state of consciousness in brainwashing (“the suspension of left-brain criticism of right-brain beliefs such that the beliefs are uncritically and enthusiastically adopted.”) As should be clear from our discussion above, the notion that brainwashing uses the induction of a primitive state of consciousness and a resulting inability to resist indoctrination, leading to an addictive or compulsive attachment to a new worldview and a false self, is the heart of the first stage CIA brainwashing paradigm. (In Zablocki’s formulation, the conversion to the new worldview is regarded as involuntary and compulsive because it follows from the absence of even “low-level testing of the consequences of our convictions” and thus the new worldview is “accepted uncritically”.)

Disconfirmation of the Primitive Consciousness Hypothesis

As we discussed in the introduction, Zablocki claims to base his brainwashing formulation upon research on Communist thought reform at the time of the Korean War, particularly the research of Schein and Lifton. Contrary to his claims that such research supports his formulation, however, with its central proposition that brainwashing results from the induction of a primitive state of defective cognition and resulting suggestibility, such researchers found that Communist influence did not result from diminished cognitive competence. Schein states:

There is always a certain amount of distortion, sharpening, leveling, and false logic in the beliefs and attitudes which other people acquire. Because people are ambivalent on many issues it is easy to play up some “facts” and play down others when our value position or feeling changes. Coercive persuasion no more or less of such distortion than other kinds of influence, but our popular image of “brainwashing “ suggests that somehow the process consists of extensive self-delusion and excessive distortion. We feel that this image is a false one: it is based on our lack of familiarity with or knowledge about the process and the fact that so much publicity was given to the political influence which resulted in a few cases. (Schein, 1961, 239)

In addition, Schein found in his research that Communist coercive persuasion did not result from the induction of hypnosis or other forms of dissociation. He states:

Given these considerations, it is difficult to see how Meerloo and Huxley can be so sure of the effectiveness of brainwashing and of their interpretation of it as a process based on hypnosis and Pavlovian psychology. The chief problem with the hypnotic interpretation [of Communist coercive persuasion] is that the relationship between hypnotist and subject is to a large degree a voluntary one, whereas the coercive element in persuasive persuasion is paramount (forcing the individual into a situation in which he must in order to survive physically and psychologically, expose himself to persuasive attempts). A second problem is that as yet we do not have an adequate theoretical explanation for the effects seen under hypnosis, and hence there is little to be gained by using it as an explanatory concept. Third, and most important, all hypnotic situations, that I know of involve the deliberate creation of a state resembling sleep or dissociation. The essence of coercive persuasion, on the other hand, is to produce ideological and behavioral changes in a fully conscious, mentally intact individual. (Schein, 1959, 437, emphasis mine)

See also Schein, 1959, 437. Such statements indicate that cultic brainwashing formulations such as Zablocki’s that highly resemble the CIA mind control theory on the issue of whether brainwashing is based upon the induction of primitive states of consciousness explicitly contradict their claimed theoretical/empirical foundation of generally accepted research on Communist thought reform.


As we have shown, the CIA brainwashing model which had been disconfirmed by Lifton and others, as well as the body of research on nrms described above, provides the claimed theoretical foundation for all statements of brainwashing theory, including cultic brainwashing formulations such as Zablocki’s. Consequently, Zablocki’s cultic brainwashing theory, like the earlier second stage statements of cultic brainwashing theory, such as those of Singer and Ofshe, is contradicted by its own claimed theoretical foundation, that is the research of Schein and Lifton. Anthony’s 1990 article demonstrated that eight variables differentiated Singer’s and Ofshe’s second stage brainwashing theory from Schein’s and Lifton’s research. Anthony’s 2001 article demonstrated the same set of conflicts between Zablocki’s approach and generally accepted research on Communist thought reform, and this article has demonstrated similar conflicts between all brainwashing formulations, including Zablocki’s, and a large body of contemporary research on nrms.

As Anthony argued in his 1990 article, Schein’s and Lifton’s research on Communist forceful indoctrination practices disconfirmed the CIA model with respect to 8 variables. These are: 1) Conversion; none of Schein’s and Lifton’s subjects became committed to Communist worldviews as a result of the thought reform program. Only two of Lifton’s 40 subjects and only one or two of Schein’s 15 subjects emerged from the thought reform process expressing sympathy for Communism and none of them actually became Communists. Communist coercive persuasion produced behavioral compliance but not belief in Communist ideology (Lifton, 1961, 117, 248-49; Schein, 1958, 332, 1961, 157-166, 1973, 295.) 2) Predisposing Motives; those subjects who were at all influenced by Communist indoctrination practices were predisposed to be so before they were subjected to them (Lifton, 1961, 130; Schein, 1961, 104-110, 140-156; 1973, 295); 3) physical coercion; Communist indoctrination practices produced involuntary influence only in that subjects were forced to participate in them through extreme physical coercion. (Lifton, 1961, 13; 1976, 327-328; Schein 1959, 437[26], 1961, 125-127); 4) continuity with normal social influence; The non-physical techniques of influence utilized in Communist thought reform are common in normal social influence situations. (Lifton, 1961, 438-461; Schein, 1961, 269-282, 1962, 90-97, 1964, 331-351 ) 5) Conditioning; No distinctive conditioning procedures were utilized in Communist coercive persuasion (Schein, 1959, 437-438, 1973, 284-285; Biderman, 1962, 550); 6) psychophysiological stress/debilitation; The extreme physically-based stress and debilitation to which imprisoned thought reform victims were subjected did not cause involuntary commitment to Communist worldviews. (Hinkle and Wolff, 1956; Lifton, 117, 248-49; Schein, 1958, 332, 1961, 157-166, 1973, 295. Moreover, no comparable practices are present in new religious movements (Anthony, 1990, 309-311); 7) deception/defective thought; Victims of Communist thought reform did not become committed to Communism as a result of deception or defective thought. (Schein, 1961, 202-203, 238-39) 8) dissociation/hypnosis/suggestibility. Those subjected to thought reform did not become hyper-suggestible as a result of altered states of consciousness, e.g. hypnosis, dissociation, disorientation, etc. (Schein, 1959, 457; Biderman, 1962, 550)

The primary basis for Zablocki’s “exit costs” third stage brainwashing perspective is the notion that the research of Lifton and Schein had demonstrated that Communist thought reform could bring about a conversion to the Communism worldview that: 1) did not result from predisposing motives to respond favorably to Communist ideology; 2) resulted rather from disorientation, suppression of critical thought, hyper-suggestibility, and the resulting inability to resist propaganda advocating an alternative worldview; 3) persisted once the thought reform process had been completed; 4) was difficult for the convert to Communism to repudiate even at the point at which he or she desired to do so

As Anthony demonstrates in various publications, however, (1990, 1996, 2001) all of these propositions were disconfirmed by Schein’s and Lifton’s research. None of their subjects became Communists at any point and only a very small number of them showed any degree of increased sympathy for Communist ideas. Those few who became more sympathetic to Communism did so because of predisposing motives to respond favorably to Communist ideology rather than because of a disoriented state, decreased cognitive ability, hyper-suggestibility and a resulting inability to resist ideas to which they were not naturally attracted. Furthermore, there was no evidence that those few subjects felt trapped or mentally imprisoned by their sympathy for some Communist ideas.

It would seem that like Singer’s and Ofshe’s account of the brainwashing paradigm, Zablocki’s “exit costs” brainwashing theory conflicts in fundamental ways with its claimed theoretical and empirical foundation of generally accepted research upon Communist thought reform. If there is any scientific support for Zablocki’s brainwashing perspective, it would it would have to come from sources other than its alleged relationship to Communist thought reform. The abundant and methodologically sound research on nrms discussed in this article has also disconfirmed Zablocki’s, as well as the other versions of the brainwashing idea.

In our earlier discussion on the history of the conversion concept, we showed that in western history the concept typically has been interpreted as the transformation of person’s identity to a form that embodies a deeper commitment to a religious worldview to which he was already superficially committed. It is only in relatively recent times that conversion has been seen as necessarily involving switching to a different religious worldview or organizational commitment.

The “conversion” or “born again” experience, common in western religious history from English and American puritanism to contemporary American revivals such as the ones conducted by Billy Graham, has typically not involved religious switching in the sense assumed by some versions of cultic brainwashing theory. Adopting a new worldview and changing one’s religious affiliation may or may not be as aspect of religious conversion, but it is the adoption of a “new” self and a “new” more religiously committed way of life that is the essence of conversion concept.

Zablocki’s reinterpretation of the brainwashing concept as a coercively imposed transformation of identity and a dramatically enhanced degree of commitment to a pre-existing religious worldview is compatible with conversion in this traditional sense of the term. In terms of the scientific evaluation of the brainwashing idea, it is not really significant whether such coercive conversion to a different self and a deeper level of commitment to a religious worldview is conceptualized as occurring at the beginning of an attachment to a religious worldview, or whether such a conversion to a new self is coercively imposed after the initial commitment to the worldview has already begun. In either case, this transformation involves “conversion” in the sense of a religiously significant transformation of the self.

The key issue relative to the scientific standing of brainwashing theory is whether the transformation of self and commitment (whether to a new or to a pre-existing worldview) has been coercively imposed in a way that contradicts the free will of the individual, and whether that claim of coercive influence has been confirmed or disconfirmed by scientific research. As we have shown, in its major dimensions and empirical claims, Zablocki’s “exit costs” formulation of the brainwashing idea is the same as the earlier versions of brainwashing theory that he claims to be repudiating as unscientific. Zablocki’s formulation, like all other brainwashing formulations, is essentially a minor, cosmetically altered versions of the same basic theory. That core brainwashing theory has been conclusively disconfirmed in all of the realms in which it has been scientifically evaluated.


This paper has achieved its purpose if it has raised some doubts about the simplistic extrinsic “brainwashing” model of participation in new religions or other social movements and suggested a more nuanced interactive model. Those who undergo a conversion experience whether in their pre-existing or in a new religion tend to be “seekers” who experiment with the transformation self to a deeper and more religiously committed form.

Notwithstanding some deception and manipulation in the self-presentation of some groups, there is generally some “elective affinity” between the group and the recruit, which commences a process of interaction in which certain types of individuals and certain types of groups jointly create a religious milieu. The group may strongly influence the devotee and play a necessary but not sufficient condition in the nature of his/her conversion to a new self, but devotees also influence the evolution of groups, especially when a group attracts many unstable persons or when participants’ orientations entail an expectation of strong, charismatic leadership.

Recruits frequently defect when they perceive that a group does not meet their needs, is less ideologically or otherwise congruent with their predispositions, or is evolving in a problematic direction. The selectivity of potential recruits and potential defectors would appear to limit the application of the extrinsic model. Moreover, contrary to the exit costs” interpretation of the brainwashing idea, the members of relatively totalitarian groups, which have high defection rates, are more apt to defect than members of more democratic groups. This would seem to indicate that so-called cults have lower rather than higher exit costs when compared to more democratic groups. There appears to be little evidence that people are confined in formally voluntary totalistic groups against their will, or that the “new self” resulting from a conversion experience in such groups is imposed in a way that is ego-alien and independent of the nature of their pre-conversion selves.

This paper has a subtext. The realities of recruitment, defection and authoritarianism in even totalistic “cults” cannot fully explain the fixation of the anticult movement on the use of “mind control” and allied constructs to characterize and stigmatize conversion/commitment processes in “cults.” Elsewhere we have documented a latent or concealed concern with the content of cultic beliefs on the part of the fiercest critics of “destructive cults” (Anthony, 1990; Anthony and Robbins, 1995b). As noted in our introductory section, through various “disestablishments” (Hammond, 1992), American culture and religion has evolved in a direction in which personal autonomy, religious diversity and lifestyle choices have continually expanded. The proliferation of esoteric movements may reflect the emergence of a new “postmodern” cultural stage.

The authors believe that the anticult movement is a kind of revitalization movement for a “modern” (as opposed to postmodern) culture in which there has been considerable spiritual diversity yet less than the current disorientating explosion with its challenge to the dominant utilitarian individualist ethos. An additional dimension of the mind control fixation is related to the problematic quality of autonomy in the postmodern world in which an expansion of apparent diversity and choice co-exists with both a cultural celebration of individualism and latent anxieties over hidden threats to personal autonomy emanating from mass advertising, state surveillance, new technology, the “iron cage” of bureaucratic rationalism, currents of fanaticism, etc. As James Beckford suggested in Cult Controversies (Beckford, 1985), the symbolic and social issues raised by controversies over cults may ultimately be more significant than the movements themselves.


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[1] For summaries of conversion research in the 1970s and 1980s, see Snow and Machalek (1984) and Robbins (1988, 63-99). See also Machalek and Snow (1993) and Richardson (1993). For an overview of cult/brainwashing discourse, see Dawson (1998, 102-127). See also Zablocki and Robbins, ed (2001) for several papers representing different perspectives on cult/brainwashing issues.

[2] See particularly Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman’s popular volume (1978. 2nd ed., 1986) Snapping: America’s Epidemic of Mass Personality Change.

[3] Political and therapeutic ideologies such as Marxism and Freudian Psychoanalysis may also qualify as varieties of self-estrangement theory.

[4] On suicidal/homicidal collective violence associated with alternative religions, see Robbins and Palmer (1997), Dawson (1998, 128-157), Hall et. al., (2000), Wessinger (2000), Richardson (2001), Anthony et. al., (2002). It is not the view of the present writers that there are no objectionable, disruptive or even pathological and dangerous elements associated with some deviant religious movements (cf Anthony et. al., 1991; Robbins, 1997).

[5] Conversion has often been thought of as something that happens to or is done to a more or less passive recipient, e.g., Saint Paul being converted by a divine voice on the road to Damascus. Richardson (1985, 1993) argues that conversion is often a dynamic active endeavor on the part of the convert and particularly with regard to converts to new movements.

[6] Majority opinion of Judge Stanley Mosk, et. al., David Molko and Tracy Leal vs. the Holy Spirit for the Unification of World Christianity. 762 p. 2d 46 (Cal. 1988), p. 52.

[7] Schein (1961, 125-127). Elsewhere Schein (1959) has suggested that elements of coercive persuasion may be found in many conventional institutions such as reputable religious orders, college fraternities, etc. This latter view expands the coercive persuasion idea beyond the setting of physical constraint but still affords little basis for separating “cults” from other institutions as distinctively coercive, i.e., coercive persuasion becomes nearly ubiquitous. See Anthony and Robbins (1992).

[8] Lifton employs the term “brainwashing” a number of times in his book (1961), but generally puts the term in quotation marks. Moreover, he demystifies the term, rejecting “an image of ‘brainwashing’ as an all-powerful, irresistible, unfathomable and magical method of achieving total control over the human mind.” Such misleading and sensational usage “makes the word a rallying point for fear, resentment, urges toward submission. Justification for failure, irresponsible, accusation and for a wide gamut of emotional extremism” (1961, 4). We would argue that Lifton is not really writing in the brainwashing tradition of Sargent, Meerloo (1956) and others. He has been interpreted in this connection in part because of the Cold War context, and partly because of the harsh conditions which the Chinese officials imposed on his subjects and which he describes.

[9] Darrow and Simon were particularly predisposed or susceptible to manipulation by totalitarian captors because, as Lifton notes, they lacked the strong beliefs and integrative totalist centre of their fellow captive, fundamentalist Bishop Barker. Darrow and Simon thus “responded very strongly to the opportunity to merge with the Chinese people,” and through their embrace of new values and their evident “sincerity,” cope with their guilt feelings. “Both achieved a greater harmony with their prison environment than with any they had previously known . .” (Lifton, 1961, 218).

[10] This is not to say that the brutal treatment of their subjects by the Chinese communists wasn’t atrocious or didn’t “cause” the conversions by compelling subjects to remain accessible to their captors. Theorists in the crusade against cults maintain that deception employed by some cult recruiters (which appears to us as basically a foot-in-the-door tactic) is the functional equivalent of the raw physical constraint employed by totalitarian officials in initially bringing and keeping subjects in an indoctrination setting (Delgado, 1977). It has also been claimed that the subtle and purely psychological (i.e., non-physical) persuasive methods of cults more potent and destructive than the crude tactics of communist totalitarians (Ofshe and Singer, 1986). Of course, the use of physical coercion may well reduce the amount of authentic, persisting orientational shift (as opposed to short-term behavioral compliance), but simply because non-physically coercive methods may be more effective than crude constraint doesn’t mean that “subtle” non-physically coercive methods are more involuntarist.

[11] It is worth noting that The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno, et. al., 1950) represents, in part the culmination of an initially European tradition of theorizing about the appeal of fascism that involved scholars such as Hannah, Arendt, William Reich and Erich Fromm. As the Cold War developed and concern shifted from fascism to communism the focus of inquiry shifted from the types of persons who are attracted to totalitarianism to the manipulative indoctrination methods employed by sinister communist regimes to remold followers (Anthony and Robbins, 1984). See Erikson (1942) for an early contribution to the original European tradition of inquiry into the appeal of totalism which anticipates some of the ideas developed here.

[12] Dr. Barker’s book (1984) received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Unification Church (“Moonies”) was in its heyday and was generally considered the most controversial and stigmatized “destructive cult.”

[13] Barker’s analysis of the on-site intensive indoctrination process really picks up where Zimbardo and Hartley’s discussion of preliminary contacts with cult recruiters leaves off.

[14] Levine (1984ab) claims to have heavily studied 15 groups and several hundred individuals. These are part of a larger group of about 1000 individuals who, as a therapist and consultant, he has had some contact with (or with their relative). The 1970s and 80s may have been the heyday of youth culture alternative religions.

[15] See Reimer and Reimer (1982), Bromley (1987), Wright (1988), Rochford et. al., (1989) and Wright and Ebaugh (1993).

[16] See Solomon (1981), Wright (1984) and Lewis (1986).

[17] This pattern is evident in a study of a racist Christian Identity Group (Young, 1990). “Identity members engage in self-idealization” (1990, 150) and project defects and weaknesses on to outsiders. “To perceive oneself as pure, impure feelings and impulses must be projected into a world where they become embodied in others” (Young, 1990, 157). The racist leader legitimates recruits’ existing pent-up hostility and directs it toward designated ideological scapegoats. “As a transitional object, the cult leader helps members express hostile impulses . . . when the cult leader initiates an antisocial act . . . cult leaders become free to act in a guiltless and violent way” (1990, 157). See also Wright and Wright (1980), an important theoretical piece on leaders of solidarity groups as parental surrogates and “transitional objects.”

[18] For evidence of elitism, paranoia and conspiracy theories in the Church of Scientology, see (surprisingly) The Scientology Handbook (1994), and official publication based on the writings of founder, L. Ron Hubbard. For discussions of elitism, volatility and antinomianism in various groups, see Anthony, Eckard and Wilber (1988).

[19] In an unpublished but provocative study (Jones, et. al.,) a Hare Krishna sample scored the highest among eleven samples of (mainly but not entirely unconventional) religious groups to whom was administered a revised authoritarianism (F. Scale) measure in Berkeley in 1980 under the supervision of R. Nevitt Sanford, one of the original co-authors of The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno, et. al., 1950).

[20] The “Dogmatism” construct and “D” scale were developed by Milton Rokeach in an attempt to refine the earlier “Authoritarian Personality” construct into a pure measure of cognitive style.

[21] Anthony’s approach has served as the primary basis for legal briefs (motions in limine, summary judgment motions, appeal briefs) designed to convince judges to exclude cultic brainwashing testimony because of the unscientific character of the brainwashing formulations upon which it is based. (As a legal consultant and expert witness Anthony has both testified against the scientific standing of cultic brianwsing testimony and has also helped lawyers in applying this approach to the legal issues and facts of specific cases.) See Anthony 1990 for the original statement of the argument which has become the primary basis for legal briefs and testimony arguing the unscientific character of cultic brainwashing testimony; see Anthony, 1996, 2000, and Anthony and Robbins, 1992, 1995a for elaborations of this basic argument and descriptions of its effects upon cultic brainwashing legal cases.

[22] On 223 Zablocki quotes Lifton as arguing that cults produce “doubling” in their converts. The quote from Lifton is the following: “Intense milieu control can contribute to a dramatic change of identity which I call ‘doubling’: the formation of a second self which lives side by side with the former one, often for a considerable period of time.” Lifton, 1991, 2). I am not sure what Lifton intended his readers to understand by this statement, but he could not accurately be claiming, as Zablocki interprets him as claiming, that his “doubling” concept is equivalent to the brainwashing notion of a false or shadow self. Lifton developed the concept of doubling, by which he meant the simultaneous existence of two radically dissimilar selves in the same person, which would express themselves in contradictory manners in different social contexts, to account for the behavior of Nazi doctors who engaged in inhumane medical research in their Nazi professional context, but who were during the same period humane and decent individuals with their families. (Lifton, 1986; 1987, 195-208)
Doubling as Lifton defines it may be seen as an extreme example of the very different interpersonal styles which people in modern industrialized nations express in their professional and their personal lives. In the former they may be highly competitive (and metaphorically bloodthirsty) capitalists whereas in the personal context they may be humane and loving. The differences in ethical and interpersonal character of the same people in the economic vs. the personal spheres in a much remarked upon characteristic of modern societies which has served as a central organizing principle of major sociological theories, e.g. those of Parsons and Habermas.
On the other hand, Zablocki’s and other brainwashing theorists conception of the false or shadow self, is very different than the concept of doubling in that it involves the notion of a new but inauthentic self which replaces the original and authentic self rather than living side by side with it at the same time in the same person. If the brainwashed person as described by Zablocki, Singer, and other cult brainwashing theorists were characterized by doubling they should be able to move smoothly back and forth between the cult and the pre-cult or familial contexts without apparent difficulty. But Zablocki and his cohort describe the brainwashed person as being unable to this except with great difficulty. See for instance Zablocki’s discussion of what he refers to as the “shadow self imbued with the cult ideology” on pgs. 236 and 237 of his 1998 article. See also West and Martin, 1994)
Doubling as Lifton defines it, no matter how extreme, could not reasonably be interpreted as implying the involuntary, compulsive or addictive attachment to a false self that Zablocki imputes to it. According to Lifton, doubling is the normal means by which people choose to engage in immoral activity. As such it is voluntarily chosen by the person rather than being imposed upon him/her by an external agent or institution. In addressing the involuntariness issue relative to the doubling concept, Lifton says:

In sum, doubling is the psychological means by which one invokes the evil potential of the self. That evil is neither inherent in the self nor foreign to it. To live out the doubling and call forth the evil is a moral choice for which one is responsible, whatever the level of consciousness involved. By means of doubling, Nazi doctors made a Faustian choice for evil: in the process of doubling, in fact, lies an overall key to human evil. (1986, 423, 424; Lifton repeats the same quote in his 1987 article, 201)

[23] Disorientation has an accepted and well-defined scientific meaning in only in two inter-related scientific field, i.e. psychiatry and neurology. In those fields, disorientation refers only to the specific lack of awareness of one’s identity, the time and date, and one’s geographical location. See Campbell, 1981, 180, 434. See also, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, 1996, “disorient Psychiatry. to cause to lose perception of time, place or one’s personal identify. In these definitions, personal identity refers only to literal awareness of one’s name and of one’s status as a specific psychological/physical entity with a specific physical and social history. It does not refer to the subtler and more controversial discontinuities in selfhood which are alleged to be a consequence of brainwashing. Testing for “orientation” with respect to personal identity, place and time is generally the first test conducted in a standard psychiatric interview of mental status exam. Disorientation in this sense is considered to indicate that the patient is suffering from a neurological rather than a psychological disorder, e.g. one of the senile dementias, or a toxic brain conditioned induced by drugs or physical disease.
In defining brainwashing as a process that is accomplished primarily by means of disorientation, Zablocki appears to be giving the disorientation term a more metaphorical and less precise meaning than its scientific meaning in psychiatry, as a way of disputing the allegedly transcendent or mystical character of the altered states of consciousness in which religious influence often occurs. In this less precise form, however, disorientation is an evaluative rather than a scientific term, as it is unfalsifiable. That is, thus used, the term has no clear operational definition such that its presence could be disconfirmed in research on the conversion process. In discussing this issue with Zablocki, he was unable to provide me with a precise scientific definition for his usage such that its absence in a specific instance could be empirically determined, and he questioned whether the term has the restricted meaning in psychiatry which I have specified above. However, he was unable to provide me with a citation to any other well-accepted and falsifiable usage in psychiatry or any other science.
Indicated, in psychiatry or neurology, lack of orientation with respect to person place and time is considered to be diagnostic or some form of organic brain dysfunction, as opposed to the sorts of mental disease that have social environmental and psychodynamic causes. In the latter part of his 1998 article, -- Zablocki claims that brainwashing has an organic basis (neuroendocrinological or neurophysiological) and is thus distinguishable from other forms of social influence on this basis. In using the term disorientation rather than hypnosis or trance, Zablocki may have been implying this speculative organic basis for brainwashing. As I will discuss below, he bases his hopes that the brainwashing concept will some day be falsifiable on the assumption that it has a distinctively organic basis. However, as he admits in that section, he cannot provide any scientific or empirically falsifiable basis for this speculation, and his vague and unfalsifiable use of the disorientation term seems consistent with this admission.

[24] Zablocki does supply a scientific citation for his use of the term “hypnotic suggestibility” which he uses as an apparent synonym for the meaning he gives to the disorientation term in the passages quoted above. On page 237 of his 1998 brainwashing article he claims that Orne’s 1972 article reports research that demonstrates that people “can be hypnotized to do things against their will”. As we will discuss below, however, Orne’s article demonstrates findings which are exactly the opposite of the conclusion that Zablocki imputes to it, that is, Orne’s research demonstrated that hypnosis cannot be used to get people to do things against their will. In Zablocki’s case as is typical for brainwashing theorists, the terms for primitive consciousness viewed as essential for brainwashing are either so vaguely defined that they unfalsifiable, or when they are defined through a claimed basis in scientific research, that research is typically misinterpreted, as with Zablocki’s and other brainwashing theorists’ claim that the brainwashing thesis is based upon Lifton’s and Schein’s research.

[25] In his 1980 book Zablocki describes the disorientation and cognitive deficiency which he believes to be characteristic of the imposition of the brainwashed state thusly:

The cognitive disorder associated with type 5, or absolute, charisma is submissiveness. The common manifestations of this among cult members, the glassy eyes, the hollow beaming smile, are too well known to need examples here. As many accounts of cult experiences have indicated A(e.g. Edwards, 1979), these exaggerated symptoms of extreme cognitive submissiveness (turning off the mind) are a conditioned response, among cult members, to any challenge to the absolute truth of the cult reality. (Zablocki, 1980, 332, emphasis mine)

On the next page Zablocki describes the transition of a group from being a legitimate Christian group to a brainwashed cult:

It was at this time also that the glassy-eyed, frozen smile look began to appear on the faces of the Waystation members. In terms of our model this was a symptom of a crisis of self-estrangement. A sense of legitimate total commitment to the charismatic leader had given way to an artificial forced total commitment, maintained only through adherence to the mind-emptying discipline of submissiveness. (Zablocki, 1980, 333, emphasis mine)

 In his 1998 article Zablocki acknowledges that research has demonstrated that such disorientation and defective cognition are not characteristic of allegedly brainwashed member so so-called cults (pg. 232), but he attempts to get around this by claiming that these qualities are only essential characteristics of cult converts during the process of brainwashing rather than after they have been successfully brainwashed. “The popular association of brainwashing with zombie or robot states comes out of a confusion between the physical characteristics of people going through the brainwashing process and the characteristics of those who have completed the process.” (232, emphasis his) In his earlier book however, he appears to be saying that such cognitive defects are continuing characteristics of cult members, i.e. “an artificial forced total commitment, maintained only through adherence to the mind-emptying discipline of submissiveness”. It is likely that this shift (from viewing disorientation and extreme cognitive defects as essential to the ongoing maintenance of brainwashed “forced total commitment” to the cult, to viewing disorientation and extreme cognitive defects as characteristic only of the process of brainwashing but not of continuing commitment to the cult), is an example of tactical ambiguity in the face of disconfirming evidence.

[26] Schein states: “the coercive element in coercive persuasion is paramount (forcing the individual into a situation in which he must, in order to survive physically and psychologically, expose himself to persuasive attempts).”(1959, 437)


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